No one goes to Broadway to see the understudy. So when a record crowd of 26,276 – many of whom spent profligate sums for tickets on the resale market – packed Red Bull Arena on Saturday night for Lionel Messi’s eagerly awaited Major League Soccer debut, there was a palpable sense of disappointment when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was absent from Inter Miami’s starting lineup.
The breather, of course, was well deserved. The Argentina captain had featured in all eight games for Inter Miami since joining from Paris Saint-Germain on 21 July, including 390 minutes in four matches over the past two weeks. After sparking the fourth-year expansion side to their first ever trophy in last week’s Leagues Cup final with his 10th goal in seven contests, Messi looked positively gassed for lengthy stretches of Wednesday’s US Open Cup semi-final win at FC Cincinnati. And who could blame him? Not even Lea Michele can play Fanny Brice every night.
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“When we found out that he wouldn’t be starting, I expected there was going to be a couple angry fans,” Miami right-back DeAndre Yedlin said after Saturday’s game against the New York Red Bulls. “But if I was a kid or a fan and I came, I would want to see the greatest to ever play the game, as well, so I can’t blame them.”
On paper it was little more than a garden-variety midseason fixture between clubs on the wrong side of the playoff picture. But the Messi effect has conferred all Miami games with a sense of occasion, including the simulcast of the match that played on a Times Square videoboard. Chants of “We want Messi!” swept across the ground in the fifth, seventh and 10th minutes with rising intensity, then several more times in the first half. Even after Diego Gómez’s well-taken goal in the 36th minute, which might have tempted Inter Miami coach Tata Martino to sit on the lead and give his star the rest his 36-year-old body most likely needs, the calls for the World Cup hero persisted.
The pleas were obliged two minutes into the second half when Messi rose from his seat on the Miami bench, whipping the crowd into a frenzy – this was a Miami away game, remember – as he made his way to the corner to begin warming up. The roars only intensified when he entered the match in the 60th minute along with his longtime Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets.
And it rose to a deafening pitch less than a half-hour later, when he linked up with the American teenager Benjamin Cremaschi for a sensational goal that sealed a 2-0 win for Miami. It was needed: the victory snapped an 11-match winless streak in the league that dated back to May, and extended a run of nine games unbeaten since Messi’s arrival. As his career winds down, he continues to defy expectations.
It’s not quite Swiftonomics, but the trickle-down economic impact of Messi Mania was plainly visible in the streets and parking lots surrounding Red Bull Arena that were rammed to capacity and a blur of activity hours before kickoff. A thoroughfare of dozens of unofficial booths and vendors outside the stadium hawked pupusa, arepa, pincho de pollo, elote and cerveza – to say nothing of a seemingly bottomless supply of bootleg pink and black No 10 shirts. Music blared from professional-grade speakers while revelers set off fireworks in broad daylight. Such is the passion and revelry Messi’s presence inspires.
But amid fixture congestion and load management concerns, Martino’s responsibility of balancing public demand with his star’s wellbeing remains a complicated task. As the former Barcelona and Argentina coach put it on Friday: “I understand the expectations the rest of the world has to watch him, and that is undeniable. But I cannot act based on that, because then I would risk doing things wrong.”
After Saturday’s win, Miami are 11 points adrift of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 11 matches remaining, although they have games in hand against the clubs above them. With a place in the US Open Cup final secured and the Leagues Cup already in hand, Martino’s resurgent club find themselves one win away from a once-unthinkable double. Messi will also leave the club on international duty for a pair of World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Bolivia, which doesn’t make the job any easier.
“We put a lot of value in this win because this [playing with a rotation] is something we need to get used to because Leo is going to join his national team,” Martino said after Saturday’s win. “He’ll miss at least three games this year and next year it will be the same, and we need to understand that when he’s not here the team still needs to provide results.
“In regards to our chances [to make the playoffs], they are still very minimal, we cannot cover the reality we’re in. We are very far down in the standings. What we have to do is win the games we have in front of us. If we keep winning, the chances of making it will increase. Today we took the first step.”