Inter Miami’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi controls the ball during the club’s MLS season-opening victory over Real Salt Lake (Chandan Khanna)
Lionel Messi created both goals as Inter Miami made a winning start to the new Major League Soccer season with a 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.
The Argentine World Cup winner, who played the entire game, put aside any concerns about his early season fitness with an excellent performance for the bookmakers’ title favorites.
“He looked loose, fine and showed a lot of speed,” coach Gerardo Martino said of Messi, who missed the back end of last season for Miami with injuries and was also sidelined for part of the pre-season.
The other three members of Miami’s former Barcelona quartet, debutant Luis Suarez, midfielder Sergio Busquets and left-back Jordi Alba, all started in front of a capacity crowd.
Against a cautious Salt Lake side, Messi went close to opening the scoring in the 18th minute with a curling free-kick from 30 yards out which was headed off the line by Justen Glad.
He then brought huge cheers from the crowd when, on the edge of the box, his route was blocked by a player down on the floor, but he chipped the ball over him and let loose a shot which was blocked.
But Miami got in front when Spaniard Sergio Busquets found Messi and the eight-times Ballon d’Or winner cleverly slipped the ball through to Finnish forward Robert Taylor, whose low shot beat RSL keeper Zac MacMath.
The goalkeeper should have kept the effort out but it was a goal which forced the visitors to open up after the interval and their more aggressive approach caused Inter some problems.
Cristian Arango blasted a half-chance high over the bar for Salt Lake and then, after Busquets sloppily gave the ball away, Andres Gomez burst goalwards but the Colombian winger fired wide.
The Utah side should have made more of the space they found as Miami struggled in the early stages of the second half but paid the price for a lack of precision.
Sensing his team needed another goal or two to make sure of the points, Messi upped his work-rate and began to take control of the game.
Dropping deeper to collect the ball, he launched several attacks with his own swift bursts forward allied with his trademark close control.
The 36-year-old weaved down the inside left channel to find space for a cross to the back post to Julian Gressel but the German put his effort wide from the tight angle.
Then Messi burst again from deep and found Suarez who picked out Diego Gomez and the Paraguayan midfielder buried his shot low into the far corner to make it 2-0.
That trio almost combined again for a third with Messi slipping to Gomez who then served Suarez but the Uruguayan’s effort was saved by the outstretched leg of MacMath.
– A solid start –
Martino was delighted to see two of the lesser heralded members of his cast on target.
“This is what should happen with a team. Normally Luis and Leo would be the ones most associated with the goal, but the fact that Robert and Diego have converted and (Messi and Suarez) have been the assistants is always a positive thing,” he said.
The former Argentina, Mexico and Barcelona coach said he was sure that Messi and Suarez would be able to recapture some of the magic they had shown during their seasons at the Camp Nou.
“They know each other so well but we have to find that partnership that worked already in Barcelona,” he said.
For Taylor, who enjoyed a rich spell of form immediately after Messi joined the club and was a key part of the team which won the Leagues Cup, it was a positive opening to the campaign.
“It’s the start we wanted, I mean, there’s still some things that we need to work on. Obviously, it’s the first game of the season, but the positive thing is the three points and we’ll build on this,” he said.
Inter Miami return to action on Sunday at Los Angeles Galaxy.