From San Diego, Los Angeles and even Colombia, they flocked to South Florida to watch Lionel Messi and Inter Miami begin the first full season of their still inconceivable partnership.
And over the course of a frenetic 90 minutes against Real Salt Lake, fans at the newly named Chase Stadium were reminded again and again why they had made the trip. Plane, car, train, it didn’t matter.
Messi proved once again that he was worth the trip.
The Herons got their season off to a winning start Wednesday night as they beat their visitors 2-0 and mostly looked like the MLS Cup contenders they’re billed to be.
There was no Messi goal, but there were numerous reminders of his brilliance. An audacious Olympic try in the 15th minute forced goalkeeper Zac MacMath to tip over. An amazing nutmeg near midfield. A truly outrageous chip about a player preparing for a shot. Several slalom courses run through the defense.
Inter Miami beat Real Salt Lake 2-0 on opening night of the MLS season, but was uncomfortable in Florida
Fireworks light up the night sky after Robert Taylor gave Miami the lead, helped by a terrible Salt Lake goaltender.
Lionel Messi played Taylor in goal and his low shot should have been prevented but it slid into the corner.
David Beckham was all smiles on the bench as he watched his new-look Miami team claim all three points on opening night.
Wednesday night’s game marked Luis Suarez’s first appearance in MLS and helped set up Miami’s second goal of the night.
As “tired” as he may have been toward the end of the team’s arduous preseason, he certainly didn’t look that way Wednesday.
It was fair to wonder if Miami would open the season looking flat after their free preparations that saw them log thousands of air miles en route to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan.
Still, there was optimism in the air.
Luis Suarez warmly hugged co-owner David Beckham as he was introduced to fans along with his family.
The pink wave in the fan zone rebounded. A pair of fans under the press box brandished an Argentine flag as the teams filed out.
However, any doubts about the opening day were quickly dispelled as the hosts looked match fit rather than worn down from last month’s friendlies.
Shortly after the first minute, Suárez launched a ball over Messi near the goal. The play ended in a goal kick after Messi collided with MacMath, but it was nonetheless a harbinger of how the match would unfold.
Such was the (well-founded) fear that Messi instilled in his opponents that they placed a defender on the goal line during a free kick he took from 30 yards about 15 minutes later. It turned out to be a success, as Justen Glad was forced to head a possible goal over the bar.
In a mad scramble in the 20th minute, a flurry of shots ensued in the area: Messi’s attempt blocked and Suárez deflected in a sequence in which it looked like RSL would finally break.
But there were no groans from the crowd, and after more saves from Suárez and Diego Gómez, the fans were rewarded for their patience.
It was the 39th minute when Robert Taylor’s low attempt sailed through MacMath’s hands. The sequence, started by a pass from Sergio Busquets, advanced by Messi and finished by a soccer official like Taylor, showed exactly why Miami paid a lot for its four stars: It’s hard not to look home when you have the help of talent from world class. .
Sergio Busquets seemed fit to play after suffering a serious injury in the preseason and appeared calm at the base of the midfield
Messi had opportunities to score his first goal of the season but was unable to score and acted as provider.
And it’s that kind of pedigree that has captured interest in both a local and global sense.
Miami has 16 million Instagram followers, far more than any MLS club, and yet there’s still a small-town feel around the club’s only 21,500-seat stadium.
It’s not every day, for example, that your Lyft driver tells you he has David Beckham’s phone number.
Still, for Miami’s brilliant collection of talent there are problems to solve.
Salt Lake couldn’t beat their hosts, but they showed the plan on how to do it.
On several occasions early in the second half, RSL pressured their opponents into making mistakes, leaving Busquets’ crisp legs to chase the action towards his goal.
The visitors missed those opportunities, but Miami, specifically the new Julian Gressel, was also wasteful.
He missed a volley from close range following a cross and then failed in his attempt when MacNath came off his line and left the goal early.
It’s a problem Miami hopes it doesn’t have to deal with, but where will the goals come from if Messi or Suarez miss time? It’s a reasonable question, even if it’s purely hypothetical at the moment.
Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino would not have been impressed by some of his team’s play, but they managed a victory.
RSL were not finished at the other end of the field either.
Andrew Brody hit a half volley in the 65th minute from close range, Brayan Vera forced the best save of the game from Drake Callender with a header from a set piece and Cristian Arango later went down at the most inopportune moment while pushing with DeAndre Yedlin on a quick break.
Miami didn’t completely break down, but they came under pressure and at times seemed a little less dominant than the MLS Cup contender they aspire to be.
Still, his talent would eventually win out, and victory was all but assured when Diego Gómez scored home after being supplied by Suárez in the 83rd minute.
The Uruguayan will also rue a point-blank opportunity which he fired into MacMath’s foot just three minutes later, denying him his first goal.
This, however, was a good if imperfect night for the hosts.
Before the game, one couple said they would fly from Los Angeles for each home game as season ticket holders.
They will have seen more than enough on Wednesday to make them come crawling back.