No You go to Broadway to see the understudy. So with a record crowd of 26,276 spectators – many of whom were spent lavish sums for tickets On the resale market – on Saturday night the Red Bull Arena was packed for the much-anticipated debut of Lionel Messi in Major League Soccer. There was palpable disappointment when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner did not start Inter Miami.
The break was of course well deserved. The Argentina captain has played in all eight games for Inter Miami since joining from Paris Saint-Germain on July 21, including 390 minutes in four games over the past two weeks. After Messi’s 10th goal in seven games in last week’s Leagues Cup final gave the fourth-year-promoted team their first ever trophy, he looked exhausted for much 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 each night.
“When we found out he wasn’t starting, I expected there would be some angry fans,” Miami right-back DeAndre Yedlin said after Saturday’s game against the New York Red Bulls. “But if I were a kid or a fan and I came, I would also like to see the greatest player of all time, so I can’t blame them.”
On paper, it was little more than a typical mid-season game between clubs that were on the wrong side of the playoffs. But the Messi effect added a sense of occasion to all matches in Miami, including the game’s simulcast played on a video board in Times Square. “We want Messi!” shouts swept across the floor with increasing intensity in the fifth, seventh and tenth minutes, then several more times in the first half. Even after Diego Gómez’s well-made goal in the 36th minute that might have tempted Inter Miami coach Tata Martino to step up and give his star the rest that his 36-year-old body probably needs is screaming the World Cup hero persevered.
The pleas were answered two minutes into the second half when Messi rose from his seat on the Miami bench and caused a commotion in the crowd – it was an away game in Miami, remember – as he made his way to the corner made to start warming up. The roar only intensified when he came into play in the 60th minute alongside longtime Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets.
And less than half an hour later he escalated to deafening proportions when he scored alongside American teenager Benjamin Cremaschi in a sensational goal that sealed Miami’s 2-0 win. It was needed: the win ended an 11-game winning streak in La Liga that stretched back to May and extended the nine-game unbeaten streak since Messi’s arrival. As his career draws to a close, he continues to defy expectations.
It’s not quite Swiftonomics, but the fading economic impact of Messi Mania was clearly visible in the crowded streets and car parks around the Red Bull Arena, as well as in a blurry bustle hours before kick-off. A thoroughfare with dozens of unofficial stalls and vendors in front of the stadium peddling Pupusa, Arepa, Pincho de Pollo, Elote and Cerveza – not to mention a seemingly limitless supply of fake pink and black No 10 jerseys. Music blared from professional speakers while revelers set off fireworks in broad daylight. Such is the passion and exuberance that Messi’s presence evokes.
But amid match congestion and load management concerns, Martino’s responsibility to balance public demand with his star’s well-being remains a complicated task. As the former Barcelona and Argentina coach put it on Friday: “I understand the expectations that the rest of the world has of him and that is undeniable.” But I can’t act on that because then I risk doing something wrong make.”
After Saturday’s win, it’s Miami’s turn 11 points off the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 11 games remaining, although they still play games against the clubs above them. With a spot in the US Open Cup final secured and the Leagues Cup in hand, Martino’s resurgent club are one win away from a once-impossible double. Messi will also leave the club due to his international cap for two World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Bolivia, which doesn’t make the task any easier.
“We attach great importance to this win because we have to get used to it (playing with rotation) because Leo will join his national team,” said Martino after Saturday’s win. “He will miss at least three games this year and next year it will be the same and we have to understand that the team has to deliver results even when he’s not here.
“Our chances (of reaching the playoffs) are still very slim, we cannot cover the reality we are in. We’re very far down the table. What we have to do is win the games that are ahead of us. If we keep winning, the chances of making it increase. Today we took the first step.”