Amid fanfare, glitz, glamor and a sold-out stadium, an Argentine superstar wearing the number 10 received a rousing welcome as he emerged from the tunnel in Atlanta. The trap ? It was Thiago Almada, not Lionel Messi.
This was billed as the next stop on Messi’s US tour, another sold-out stadium and the biggest crowd of the MLS season, crackling with excitement to see the best to ever play the game.
Ultimately, they could have been done with him: An eight-minute first-half collapse saw Miami fall from 1-0 to 3-1, and their improbable playoff push took an almighty blow in the process.
It emerged late Friday night that Inter Miami had opted to leave Messi in South Florida, where he ate pizza and watched his son Thiago play for the club’s academy instead of traveling to Georgia and on the artificial pitch in Atlanta.
It was the worst possible news for the MLS season record 71,635 people in attendance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, thousands of whom wore Messi 10 jerseys, after paying hundreds of dollars and traveling thousands of miles to attend the match.
A young fan in the stands of the Mercedes-Benz stadium holds up a sign reading: “Where is Messi?”
In truth, perhaps Tata Martino – a man revered in these parts after guiding Atlanta United to the MLS Cup in 2018 – will regret the decision to rest his star man. The math is simple: leave Messi out and you lose, 100% of the time.
Prior to Saturday night’s match, Inter Miami were undefeated in 12-11 of those matches ending in wins – a streak dating back to the day Messi signed. It was the first time he was missing from the team’s roster, and the first time the hype train was derailed.
It all started so well for Martino and Miami, who took early pressure from Atlanta, then used a moment of pure magic to take the lead and silence the notoriously loud Atlanta crowd, who were desperate for an entertaining match after the initial disappointment of Messi’s absence. .
The move was started by Dixon Arroyo, whose long-range rocket rattled the goal frame, only for Leonardo Campana to take the reins and finish the move brilliantly.
The young Ecuadorian signed a four-year contract extension this week and he celebrated by lifting the ball over the head of Atlanta center back Miles Robinson and past a helpless Brad Guzan.
All the chatter after the goal centered on Miami’s playoff hopes. It was their toughest MLS test yet – and even without Messi, they were in the lead. The live table on Atlanta’s 360-degree video board saw them leapfrog the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC and Charlotte, all the way to 11th place and just three points out of a Wildcard spot.
Then reality set in. First it was Tristan Muyumba to Atlanta’s rescue, glancing from the near post header to the far post and – just – across the line. A lengthy VAR check had the stadium holding its breath, but eventually the goal was awarded and Miami’s bubble burst.
Four minutes later, this incredible indoor arena erupted – at the expense of Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller. The move was started by Edwin Mosquera on the left, the diminutive midfielder whipping a cross towards a dangerous area. Miller, his legs tangled, inadvertently sent the ball past his own goalie, and Miami’s night went from good to bad to worse.
Worse turned disastrous three minutes later when Atlanta added a third goal before halftime, with Miami’s defense going all out to allow Brooks Lennon to fire home. Caleb Wiley’s cross found the former Liverpool academy starlet unoccupied in the box, and he took one touch to get the ball off his feet, and another to fire home to give his team a 3-1 lead.
In just eight minutes, Miami’s dismal defensive performance provided a glimpse into life before Messi, Alba and Busquets, serving as a reminder that this team was at rock bottom and staring down the barrel of another disastrous season.
In the second half there were threats of a comeback when a Luis Abram handball gifted Inter Miami a penalty and a return to the match.
It was duly dispatched by Campana, who scored his fifth goal in just three games to make it 3-2. Miami was there before this season, making remarkable comebacks, but only with its talisman on the court. This time he was 700 miles away, watching TV with his feet up.
In truth, Martino’s team never really threatened Guzan’s goal again. Even though they were just a goal behind, it looked increasingly likely that Atlanta would increase their lead, and that became a reality in the 76th minute when star striker Giorgos Giakoumatis entered the action.
Inter Miami coach Tata Martino arrives at the stadium ahead of Saturday night’s match.
The Greek striker is in the midst of a remarkable campaign and he completed a brilliant team effort to score his 14th goal of the year, tying Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar as the championship leader.
In the 89th minute, substitute Tyler Wolff capped Atlanta’s five-star run with a fifth goal, firing home to put the result beyond doubt.
It was therefore a heavy defeat for Inter Miami – the first since Messi’s arrival in South Florida. The Argentine superstar has cleared the fog surrounding the team, but it’s a stark reminder that without him, they’re just another MLS team — and a below-average one at that.
If they want to have any chance of reaching the playoffs, they need him at his best. No more pizza breaks.