Young, Hungry & Underestimated: Look out for the New-Look Miami FC

A long way from their giant-killing heroics in the 2017 Open Cup, youthful USL Championship side The Miami FC are led by an Italian legend and eager to prove the doubters wrong.
By: Michael Battista

Sunshine, Sand…and Soccer.

The city of Miami, Florida is at the heart of the American game right now. With Lionel Messi and his 2023 U.S. Open Cup Runners-up Inter Miami CF playing just north and amateurs Miami United FC knocking off their second professional team this year, it’s a pretty good time in town from top to bottom.

But twenty miles west of South Beach, cutting through the historic Little Havana neighborhood, fans will find The Miami Football Club toiling away at Florida International University. The only professional soccer team to play within Miami’s city limits enters its fifth season in the USL Championship.

With a new head coach and a completely shaken-up roster some have chosen to overlook the group ahead of a debut in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a tournament in which some of the club’s most memorable moments have come.

Fresh Faces on South Beach

As of this week, midfielder Gabriel Cabral is alone. The Brazilian is the only player left on the current roster who played for the team in 2023. Under a new head coach, the Floridians have undergone a drastic transformation – one that’s seen the median age of the team plummet to 23.

The soon to be 27-year-old Cabral, who spent the first half of last season recovering from a serious hamstring injury, has developed into a quiet leader.

Gabriel Cabral is a team leader in the The Miami FC

“We have a very young group, a very talented group of boys. For some of them it’s their first opportunity here in the U.S.,” Cabral said ahead of the club’s Open Cup opener against third-division pros South Georgia Tormenta at home on Wednesday, April 17th. “I’m showing them little things that I'm already used to because I have been here for quite some time now, but they haven't.

I think it also helps them just to acclimatize with the country and feel at home because I'm pretty sure that when you feel at home you're gonna’ perform better on the field,” he said.

Cabral’s tendency toward guidance makes sense when you consider that, prior to and during his early professional days in the United States, he was a college coach at both West Virginia University and the University of Charleston.

His new teammates include a plethora of talent from across the U.S. lower divisions and abroad, especially from Italy and Cabral’s native Brazil. For some, like midfielder Allen Gavilanes, it's a step up the ladder from playing in USL League One with Greenville Triumph SC. For many others, like midfielder Manuel Botta, it's their first time playing soccer in the States.

While this won’t be Gavilanes first Open Cup, he can relate to what some of his teammates will be going through against South Georgia’s Tormenta in the Third Round. While playing for New York Red Bulls U-23s in 2019, he made his tournament debut in the Second Round against Memphis 901 FC. The reason he didn’t play in the Premier Developmental League (PDL) side’s First Round win? He had a final exam at Marist University and he wasn’t excused.

“Obviously I was very nervous. Just a couple of days before that, I was in school taking finals. So then being in the U.S. Open Cup and playing for the Red Bulls, it was gonna be a hard game,” said Gavilanes. “I was nervous but once I got on the pitch, the first few plays I kind of settled in.”

Botta, meanwhile, has a slightly different experience. His first taste of cup action came in the Coppa Italia. While playing in Italy’s Serie C, his S.S. Audace Cerignola lost on the road to S.S. Juve Stabia in front of nearly ten thousand fans in the heart of Campania.

New Coach & Old Ways

Speaking of Italy, the man now leading The Miami FC is well acquainted with that country. Former Italian national team midfielder and Serie A mainstay Antonio Nocerino is the new boss on the sideline at FIU. In his first head coaching role, the Italian knows the challenges he'll face in the second division.

“This opportunity is important for [me to] grow or learn and to start a new career in America because last year I worked in Italy,” Nocerino said in a phone interview. “I'm happy. I know it's difficult. It is difficult because the team is new, the players young, it’s an interesting challenge, difficult, but it's ok. It’s an opportunity and experience because I know everyone is amazing.”

Allen Gavilanes is a fresh face (one of many) in The Miami FC squad

Nocerino isn’t new to Sunshine-State soccer. As a player, he spent two seasons in Major League Soccer (MLS) with 2022 Open Cup champions Orlando City SC. Following his retirement from playing in early 2020, Nocerino joined the Lions academy as a coach.

He knows first-hand about coming to another country and adapting to the style of soccer played there. While he won’t give his young players an excuse, deep down he understands considering eight of his men previously played on another continent.

“A lot of players have arrived [from] other leagues, other countries – it’s not simple,” said coach Nocerino. “Everyone needs time…maybe the players with more experience or [who have] played in the U.S. are more [respondent] to the younger players than [those who] arrive [from] other countries.”

All the players have been taking their chance to glean what they can from the former European Championship runner-up. Botta, especially, has taken up the opportunity to learn from his countryman, who, coincidentally, comes from his home area of Naples. That involves the midfielder trying things he isn’t comfortable with – but trusting his elder knows what’s best.

“I played in Italy as a number eight or number ten, but [Nocerino] thinks about me as a defensive midfielder, so a number six. In the first five games, I'm playing in that position and I didn't like it at first, but then I really started liking it because he expects a lot from me,” Botta said. “Having him as a coach is just an honor. I can really learn a lot from him.”
Miami FC’s head coach Antonio Nocerino in his playing days with Orlando City

Meanwhile for Gavilanes it’s his second time training under a former national team icon. After his time in Greenville with former U.S. Men’s National Team captain John Harkes, the New Jersey native fully appreciates how much both men understand the game.

“I kind of see both their passion to win, their desire to win, their hunger. They're so hungry to get results and play a good style of football,” Gavilanes said. “Like even watching videos. It's the little details that make a big difference for them. It is gonna’ help each and every one of us become a better soccer player.”

Former Glory

While optimism is high, Miami’s results so far in 2024 have been standard for a team that – on paper – resembles an expansion side.

They won their season opener 2-0 against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at FIU last month. Botta converted a late, deciding penalty kick to notch his first USL Championship goal. But since then the team is winless.
Manuel Botta in action for The Miami FC

But the players know how important the Open Cup can be to revitalizing a season. Cabral played with the Tormenta organization between 2021 and 2022, winning the USL League One title in the same season his underdogs knocked off two higher division teams in the Open Cup.

“One thing that is good about this Cup is that it creates more chaos and it also gives you an opportunity to react to that chaos and show character within the group,” he said. “I think beating Tormenta, if everything goes well, winning that game is already gonna’ increase that relationship, that bond within the group.”

This is also a team that has thrived in the U.S. Open Cup before. In 2017, only a year after being founded in the NASL, The Miami FC knocked off two Major League Soccer sides en route to the Quarterfinals. The run was emblazoned by a Fourth Round hat-trick by Stefano Pinho against Orlando City SC and a late goal by Kwadwo Poku to beat Atlanta United FC 2-1 in front of over 9,000 home fans.

One man who played the full 90 for Orlando City on that warm 2017 night was Antonio Nocerino. While he laughed off talking about that result, he knows what a Cup win can do.

“When you win, you work much better, much better,” he said.

While Miami went on to lose to a different Cinderella in FC Cincinnati in the Quarterfinals, the team, under former Italian World cup winner Alessandro Nesta, found continued success in the aftermath of the 2017 tournament. They went on to win NASL regular season gold, plus league titles in both the NPSL and NISA before joining the USL Championship in 2020.

The Miami FC of 2024 don’t have that kind of star-power anymore. But players like Gavilanes believe they are still being overlooked – even against a lower-division team.

“Some have written us off, we were projected to be last in the league. [That we’re] a second team, an academy team,” Gavilanes said. “So, every time we step on the field, we try to keep that in mind. We might as well just go out there, try to prove them wrong and express ourselves on the pitch.”

Michael Battista is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to, Hudson River Blue, & New York Sports Nation. Follow him at @MichaelBattista on X/Twitter.