Inter Miami players hold up teammate Lionel Messi as they celebrate after winning the the Leagues Cup title with a win over Nashville SC on Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
The Lionel Messi Effect began as a commercial phenomenon before the GOAT had even signed with Inter Miami. It began as a ticket bonanza, and an Instagram boom, and a buzz unlike any Major League Soccer had ever experienced. It was immediate, explosive and overwhelming. And still, it somehow undersold how magical Messi would be once he stepped onto a stateside soccer pitch.
He joined a last-place team fresh off a multi-week vacation. He instantly transformed that team into the best in MLS.
And within a month, on Saturday in Nashville, with help from goalkeeper Drake Callender in an 11-round penalty shootout, he led Miami to its first-ever trophy.
Nashville put up a fight, a fierce fight, and matched Messi’s goal with a goal of its own. A dramatic game ended 1-1, but the shootout topped it. After near-perfection from both sides, Callender converted Miami’s 11th penalty, then saved Nashville’s 11th attempt to clinch the title.
Messi and Co. sprinted toward him, victorious. They danced around Callender, the man of the match. But of course, they knew that their party wouldn’t have been possible without Messi, so they picked him up and lifted him into the air.
Messi scored nine goals in six games en route to the Leagues Cup final. In the final, he scored his 10th, a classic curler from the top of the box, into the top corner.
He had hardly touched the ball for 22 minutes. He’d been booed, and jeered by a rabid Nashville crowd when he misplaced one aimless pass.
Then he got one glimpse of goal. He glued the ball to his left foot. He danced around Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman. And he made more magic.
He has sparked a conversation all month about how a self-respecting league that fancied itself as one of the world’s eventual best could let a single 36-year-old tear it apart singlehandedly. And at times, the conversation has been a valid one.
But not Saturday. Nashville limited the greatest goal creator ever to just that one glimpse in the first half. And he, Messi, was and is simply, indescribably great.
He had torn up some shoddy defenses throughout his first month in Miami. This one, though, had conceded less than a goal per game through two-thirds of the MLS season. It is the stingiest in the entire league, and it seemed even stingier Saturday when it lined up in a 4-4-2 with two chippy, sturdy defensive midfielders to stifle Messi — or at least attempt to.
One of the two, Anibal Godoy, jabbed a classic CONCACAF elbow across Messi’s chest early on.
Nashville happily conceded possession, and for much of the first half, the hostile hosts ensured that Miami didn’t do much with it.
Messi, of course, only needed it once to give Miami a 1-0 lead.
But Nashville hung in the game. It grew into the second half, and equalized in the 57th minute, via a scrappy set piece and an own goal.
Messi slithered into another dangerous central area not long after, and beat Nashville keeper Elliot Panicco again — but his shot struck the base of the post.
It was Nashville, though, that stayed on the front foot. Reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar spun in behind the Miami defense, and both he and striker Sam Surridge nearly gave Nashville a lead.
In stoppage time, Surridge powered a header right at Callender’s palms.
A minute later, with penalties beckoning, Leonardo Campana broke away from Nashville’s defense, and nearly delivered this inaugural Leagues Cup a breathtaking ending. He was 1-on-1 with Panicco. He clipped the ball over Panicco’s sprawling body. It dribbled toward the far post. Campana slid for it, and tried to tap it into a gaping net — but hit the outside of that post.
Messi brought his hands to his head. And the game went to penalties.
Messi tucked away the opening penalty of the shootout, but Mukhtar matched him.
Sergio Busquets also kept his nerve, and then, with Nashville’s second attempt, Randall Leal didn’t. He fired his penalty straight into Callender’s legs. Advantage Inter.
Miami stayed ahead after three rounds, and still after four. But Nashville stayed within striking distance. Panicco then saved Victor Ulloa’s would-be winner, and Surridge scored to send the shootout to sudden death.
Serhiy Kryvtsov scored for Miami in the sixth round. Nashville’s Shaq Moore went to the same top corner to equalize.
Jordi Alba, with the first penalty shootout attempt of his entire professional career, scored in the seventh round for Miami. But Nashville’s Daniel Lovitz held serve.
Diego Gómez kept Miami one step ahead in the eighth round. But Lukas MacNaughton brought Nashville level once again.
David Ruiz, a 19-year-old, kept Miami nearly perfect, but Sean Davis made it 8-8 after nine rounds. DeAndre Yedlin and Jacob Shaffelburg made it 9-9 after 10.
Callender, Miami’s keeper, converted with authority in Round 11, then dove to his left to deny Panicco.
And by the end of the night, Messi — the tournament’s top scorer and best player — lifted the 44th trophy of his unparalleled career, a new global soccer record.
His transformation of Inter, with help from some old friends, has been multi-faceted. He, along with head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and metronomic midfielder Busquets, has turned a ragged team into a humming unit. He can pull opponents toward him without the ball, chiseling acres of space for Josef Martinez and Robert Taylor. He immediately took the captain’s armband and reformed the culture of the club, even with an incomplete understanding of English. He has been described as a coach on the field. He has been hailed as a kind-hearted locker room presence. He has energized every single one of the club’s employees, including players.
And then, on top of all that, he scored in seven straight games.
His next task will be a U.S. Open Cup semifinal. And then, finally, he will debut in MLS, whose regular season has only 12 games remaining. Inter Miami remains at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, with 18 points from 22 matches.
Miami, nonetheless, now has the joint-second-shortest odds to win MLS Cup.
Since Messi’s July 21 debut, Miami has risen from 891st in Opta’s global soccer power rankings to 372nd.
That, too, is The Messi Effect.