Photograph: Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images
The seasonal south Florida lightning brings a perpetual threat of power surges, but a soccer power shift is also brewing in the Sunshine State.
After a huge rain storm paused Inter Miami’s unveiling of Lionel Messi last month, the heavens opened again on Wednesday to hold up the club’s highly anticipated Florida derby against Orlando City in the Leagues Cup last 32.
Lightning around DRV PNK Stadium caused a 95-minute delay to kick-off, before giving way to the on-field electricity. It struck twice, as a superb brace from Messi guided Inter to a comfortable 3-1 win that eliminated the Lions from the competition.
The Argentinian now has five goals in his first three games, all in the tournament between clubs from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX. Miami, hapless before his arrival, have won all three games in which he has played.
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Notably this incarnation of Messi walks a lot, almost waiting for space rather than seeking it. At the age of 36, he jolts into action only after receiving the ball. Yet this more economical movement remains effective. He swept home close-range volleys in the seventh and 72nd minutes, rounding-off excellent moves he began after picking up the ball inside the centre circle, laying it off, and sauntering forward.
Orlando, who won easily by the same scoreline on their previous visit south in May, were well beaten here. Coach Óscar Pareja bemoaned the second-half penalty awarded to, and converted by, Josef Martínez, with the score at 1-1. But the match was a chastening experience for his team, as “Olé!” chants rang out from a packed 20,000 house during a Sergio Busquets-orchestrated keep ball session late on.
Finally, it seems Miami v Orlando has the makings of a true intra-state rivalry that should benefit two clubs on the rise, and MLS as a whole.
“I think it’s clear the rivalry is going to be wilder and better, and we’re ready to do it,” Pareja said after an often bad-tempered encounter in which Messi himself was cautioned amid regular clashes with opponents.
Despite Wednesday night’s defeat, Orlando are undoubtedly on the up. The team claimed their first major honor, winning the US Open Cup last season, and sit fifth in the MLS Eastern Conference. Miami remain dead last, but the situation should improve rapidly after the arrival of Messi and Busquets, who both started, and Jordi Alba who was introduced as a second-half substitute for his debut. They are, in truth, a different club now. The league restarts on 20 August after its midsummer pause for the Leagues Cup.
This now feels like Inter Miami in their intended form – the star-laden team co-owner David Beckham had envisioned all along. For a surreal half hour on Wednesday night, Miami fielded three stars of a great Barcelona team that lifted five La Liga titles together and a Champions League in 2015. Tata Martino, who led the trio in 2013-14, now prowls the touchline for Inter. Like that Barca team, Miami are shaping up as a possession juggernaut, carving out 72% of the ball in Wednesday’s first half and 63% overall.
But while the teams could challenge each other for major MLS honours, there’s also a culture clash.
Orlando City were established as a USL club before their 2015 MLS integration. Miami, meanwhile, was awarded a new franchise thanks to a perk in Beckham’s LA Galaxy contract and took six years of wrangling to play a game in MLS.
In time for their third season, Orlando had a purpose-built 25,500, privately funded stadium (albeit with help from a strange ‘cash for visas’ scheme from former owner Flavio Augusto da Silva). It’s a great venue, close to downtown Orlando from where you can walk to the game – something Beckham initially insisted was a must for his club.
Inter’s proposed permanent home is on the site of a (now closed) public golf course out by Miami airport, five miles from downtown. Critics have called it a real-estate heist. The club’s temporary (and for the foreseeable future) ground is 30-odd miles away from downtown Miami in Fort Lauderdale. Notably, without a roof.
In the pre-Messi era, Inter had been unable to form strong local ties (mainly because they are currently a Miami team in name only), but Orlando City have roots in the community and represent their city well. Now owned by the Wilf family, who also own the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, the club is stable, and the fans are happier.
Orlando were also quick to establish the National Women’s Soccer League’s Pride in 2017. They play at the same stadium as the men. It’s only now, perhaps due to the ongoing Women’s World Cup, that Inter Miami are speaking about a potential addition. Beckham asserts the owners have “talked about having a women’s team … from day one” but the next NWSL expansion won’t happen until 2026.
The deep contrasts between cities, clubs and cultures aren’t lost on visiting fans like Logan Miller, president of the Orlando Iron Lion Firm supporters club.
“There are rivalries that are manufactured, which the league has tried to perpetuate. This one feels a little different because of how Miami started as a club,” he said before a game where his fellow fans travelled in numbers and made themselves heard.
“They’ve been given everything, and speaking as an Orlando fan, we had to work our way through the lower divisions. We had to put by funds aside to build a downtown soccer stadium. They just said: ‘We’ll make a temp stadium, that’s fine.’
“Now Adidas and Apple TV are working as hard as they can to make sure the Messi money is allocated. I think the rivalry comes from that – a distaste for the capitalism of the league. We fight against that because we’re lowly Orlando. It’s difficult having to prove ourselves, that we’re not just theme parks. We’re not New York, LA, Chicago, or Miami. We’re Orlando – you come once every four years with your family. No one’s asking: ‘Will Kim Kardashian be here tonight?’ But people live and make a living here, and this is our club.”
The next installment of the rivalry comes in Orlando next month, where the Lions will have the chance to dent Miami’s remote chances of making the MLS playoffs.
For Messi, the local climate is another quirk of life in MLS. Last season the weather delays were “too many to count”, according to one fan taking shelter underneath the stands on Wednesday night. The big difference was – on this night at least – the football was worth the wait.
Next up for Messi is a trip to Texas to face FC Dallas in the Leagues Cup last 16. The next leg of his American adventure will be his first appearance outside of south Florida.