Lionel Messi is captivating America with his Inter Miami heroics… but ironically, the biggest threat to his soccer revolution is Miami themselves. Last in MLS, 12 points off the playoffs and 12 games left… it’s a mountain to climb, even for him
He’s really getting America to sit up and take note of football, you know.
Saturday afternoon, downtown Nashville, the heartbeat of Music City. Around the Ryman Auditorium, where Johnny Cash designed his legend and the honky-tonk bars are packed with people in cowboy boots and western hats, there was plenty of Miami pink in the blazing Tennessee sun. And the blues of Argentina and Barcelona.
“There’s a football player in town today,” declared a stunned barista in one of the quieter coffee shops. “Everyone wants a ticket for it.”
If you wanted to know the names of other Miami players, you couldn’t by reading the back of those pink jerseys. They were all ‘Messi 10’. Try to avoid him if you can. It’s really hard to.
The scenes were spectacular on Saturday night. Messi scored a breathtaking goal, his 10th in seven games, and Miami won a gripping final against Nashville on penalties in front of a capacity crowd of 31,109 fans – each paying at least $450 for a ticket – to lift their first-ever trophy.
Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to their first ever trophy on Saturday night, beating Nashville
It marks the end of an incredible five weeks since the World Cup winner came to Miami
Messi celebrated on the pitch with David Beckham, one of Miami’s co-owners
Deandre Yedlin, who relinquished the captain’s armband to Messi when he joined last month, said the team are “learning by doing” with their new star and the prospect of Miami finding a few extra gear is exciting – unless you’re a rival Major League Soccer star. team.
But with the Leagues Cup coming to an end, Miami is about to return to the MLS with a third of the season to go and a reality check will strike, if it hasn’t already: the thing that Messi has on this moment likely to stop, as he captivates a growing number here in this vast country by the week, is the Miami team itself.
Before Messi joined, Miami was confused. Winless in 11, losing games by embarrassing fouls and last in the MLS Eastern Conference with a miserable total of 18 points from 22 games.
There they continue with Messi. Miami needs to move up to ninth place, up six places, to reach the post-season playoffs and a chance to win the MLS Cup. They are 14 points off that spot – which is occupied by Chicago Fire.
They have two games in hand and 12 games to go. So yes it can be done. But with such a small margin of error, it is by no means guaranteed. Tough matches are on the schedule, including a trip to LAFC with the crafty and crafty Giorgio Chiellini set to greet them just three days after a replay of the weekend’s final against Nashville in late August.
Make no mistake, this is a mountain for Messi and Miami to climb, but the tempting thing is that they just could.
Messi will know by now that here in the United States every sporting season revolves around the playoffs. Without him, it would be nothing short of a disaster for Major League Soccer as it looks to bolster its reputation in the US and abroad.
The MLS playoffs begin at the end of October, by which time the NFL season is in full swing. If MLS wants more Americans to learn about football at that time of year, Messi and Miami just have to be there.
Messi has made a phenomenal early impression in the United States, but there is still more to do
Attention will soon turn to Miami’s bid to fight its way into the MLS playoffs
Fans were everywhere in Messi shirts on Saturday night before the final against Nashville
Miami have emerged victorious in all seven games Messi has played, but two of those have been via penalties – an opportunity they won’t have in league games. Plus, teams are getting smarter about tackling this new Miami.
Philadelphia Union ventured second in the first half of the semi-final against Miami last week, but when they attacked with two up front in the second half, they created numerous chances.
Nashville squeezed midfield in the first half on Saturday night and before Messi’s stroke of genius he had to get deep in search of the ball, facing his own goal. For 90 minutes he was fairly well enthralled – scoring with a piece of magic and a second almost came from a 25-yard shot that went off the post, rather than dismantling the defense.
Teams will also become a little less star. Every stadium is packed for Messi and so will Miami’s opponents – many will raise their game for him while the world watches.
Miami also has a busy schedule. Celebrations would have been put on hold Saturday night with a scheduled US Open semifinal on Wednesday against Cincinnati – the runaway leaders in the Eastern Conference where Miami is last.
“We’ll be ready – we need to be there,” Yedlin said after Saturday’s victory. “It’s a chance to win another trophy. It’s great that we were able to win this one while we were still learning.’
Of course, as Yedlin said, Miami is also moving forward. They are more tactically astute under Tata Martino – with all due respect to his predecessor Phil Neville – and Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have spread quality throughout the squad.
Messi scored a stunning goal for Miami in the final – but Miami needs more heroics
Sergio Busquets came to Miami at the same time as Messi and said it has been intense so far
“It’s been a hectic month,” Busquets said Saturday night. “Many matches, home and away. Everything went so fast. But we had a great tournament, ended in an exciting way today with penalties.’
Busquets was fantastic and put up the hard yards when it counted on Saturday, especially under pressure from Nashville. Always showing for the ball, holding it, moving it, getting it out of trouble.
The hard work is about to begin again for Miami when they return to MLS action in the Big Apple against New York Red Bulls on Saturday night. If they work their way into the top nine, it would be something really special.
From there, they have as good a chance as anyone at MLS glory. Let’s hope America keeps watching.