Lionel Messi, top, celebrates Facundo Farías after Farías scored in the first half of Inter Miami’s 3-1 win over LAFC at BMO Stadium on Sunday night. (Harry How / Getty Images)
The buzz began more than 30 minutes before kickoff when the best soccer player in the world led his team on to the field for warm-ups to the flash of hundreds of cellphone cameras.
The Lionel Messi Show had arrived in Los Angeles.
The anticipation continued to build during the pregame introductions, when Messi’s name was met with a roar. And when the game started, the crowd reacted each time he touched the ball.
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Part circus and part cultural phenomenon, Messi’s MLS Tour stop at BMO Stadium was the most-hyped game in LAFC history, with the team issuing approximately 350 credentials to media from around the world, about the same number the league handed out for last fall’s epic MLS Cup final at the same venue.
This time the result was different, with Messi contributing assists on the final two goals of a 3-1 victory that left Inter Miami unbeaten in 11 games since the Argentine joined the team six weeks ago. The loss was the second in a row for LAFC, the reigning league champion, which has won just twice in its last nine MLS games to fall to third in the Western Conference table.
“That team is by far the best I’ve played in MLS,” LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini said of Miami. “By far.”
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi controls the ball in front of LAFC defender Aaron Long during the first half Sunday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
For the paying customers in the stadium-record soccer crowd of 22,921 — a number buoyed by several hundred standing-room only tickets — the get-in price for a seat on the secondary market was an MLS-record $894, according to the online marketplace TickPick. Three pitch-side seats sold for $2,339 each, about the price of a Panama Canal cruise.
This being Hollywood, the stadium was also chock full of celebrities, from actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Norton and Jason Sudeikis and Dodgers Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw to Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and British royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
“I thought the atmosphere was great,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “But that’s what we expected.”
There was little doubt who they came to see: With the exception of the north end, which was a solid sea of LAFC black and gold, the grandstands were dotted with fans in pink Inter Miami jerseys or the blue-and-white striped shirts of Messi’s Argentina. Vendors did a brisk business selling both outside the stadium.
“The game shaped up exactly how we expected,” Cherundolo said. “We created a plethora of chances, but we just weren’t effective tonight. That was the difference.”
Well, that and Messi, whose two assists gave him eight to go with 11 goals in 11 games with Miami.
Although LAFC had a couple of good chances early, Inter Miami took the lead for good in the 15th minute on a goal that came from the only two Argentine starters not named Messi, 21-year-old Facundo Farías and 19-year-old Tomás Avilés. Farías, making just his second MLS start, chased a Farías rolling pass into the box and though he appeared to lose his footing just as he got to the ball, he still managed to push a shot across the goalmouth, off the far post and in for the score.
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Messi got his only good look of the first half in the 38th minute, ending a give-and-go with Diego Gómez with a left-footed shot from the center of the box that LAFC keeper John McCarthy batted away. After the game, Messi gave McCarthy the shirt off his back.
“I said camiseta, por favor. And he gave me his shirt,” McCarthy said. “I’ve got a couple of jerseys. But none like Messi’s.”
Messi got on the scoresheet six minutes into the second half, splitting the LAFC defense with a diagonal through ball that found former Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba crossing into the box alone. Alba’s left-footed finish beat McCarthy cleanly. Messi then led a breakaway in the 83rd minute before sending the ball to Leonardo Campana, who scored with a left-footed shot into the bottom left corner for Miami’s final score.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing,” Cherundolo said. “None of us should not expect it from the best player in the world. What did you think he was going to do when he came here?”
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LAFC (11-8-7) offered a murmur of protest in the 90th minute, with Ryan Hollingshead nodding in a Carlos Vela corner. That ended keeper Drake Callender’s bid for a third straight shutout for Inter Miami (7-14-4), which is eight points out of a playoff berth with eight games to play.
“The happiness, obviously, is for the three points. But also for the team we beat. We’re in a good place right now,” said Inter Miami coach Tata Martino, who called Sunday’s game his team’s most complete 90-minute effort of the season.
“Every game is going to be important and every point is going to be important. We have to compete well.”
Staff writer Eduard Cauich contributed to this story.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.