He really makes America sit up and pay attention to football, you know.
Saturday afternoon, downtown Nashville, the heart of Music City. Around the Ryman Auditorium, where Johnny Cash forged his legend and where honky-tonk bars are packed with people in cowboy boots and Western hats, there was plenty of Miami pink under the scorching Tennessee sun. And the blues of Argentina and Barcelona.
“There’s this football player in town today,” explained a puzzled barista in one of the quieter cafes. “Everyone wants a ticket for this.”
If you wanted to know the names of other Miami players, you couldn’t do it by reading the back of those pink jerseys. Each was “Messi 10”. Try to avoid it if you can. It’s really hard to.
The scenes were spectacular on Saturday night. Messi scored a jaw-dropping goal, his 10th in seven games, and Miami won a thrilling final against Nashville on penalties in front of a crowd of 31,109 fans – who paid at least $450 each for a ticket – for lift their very first trophy.
Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to their first-ever trophy on Saturday night, beating Nashville
It marks the end of an incredible five weeks since the World Cup winner joined Miami
Messi celebrated on the pitch with David Beckham, one of Miami’s co-owners
Deandre Yedlin, who gave up the captain’s armband for Messi when he arrived last month, said the team are “learning as they go” with their new star and the prospect of Miami finding an extra kit or two is thrilling – unless you’re a rival Major League Soccer team.
But as the League Cup draws to a close, Miami’s attention is about to turn to MLS with a third of the season remaining and a reality check will strike, if it hasn’t already: The most likely thing to stop Messi right now, as he captivates growing numbers here in this vast country per week, is the Miami squad itself.
Before Messi joined, Miami was in complete disarray. Winless in 11, losing games with embarrassing errors and last in the MLS Eastern Conference with a miserable tally of 18 points in 22 games.
This is where they will resume with Messi. Miami needs to climb to ninth place, six spots higher, to reach the postseason playoffs and have a shot at winning the MLS Cup. They are 14 points from that spot – which is occupied by Chicago Fire.
They have two games in hand and 12 games to play. So it is doable, yes. But with such a small margin of error, it is absolutely not guaranteed. There are some tough games in this run, including a trip to MLS Cup holders LAFC with the crafty and crafty Giorgio Chiellini set to host them just three days after a repeat of the weekend final against Nashville in late August. .
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a mountain for Messi and Miami to climb, but the tempting thing is that they could do it.
Messi now knows that here in the United States, every sporting season revolves around the playoffs. If he’s not there, it would be nothing short of a disaster for Major League Soccer as it seeks to bolster its reputation in the United States and beyond.
The MLS playoffs begin at the end of October and by then the NFL season is in full swing. If MLS wants more Americans to notice football this time of year, Messi and Miami simply have to be there.
Messi had a phenomenal early impact in the United States, but there is still a long way to go
Attention will soon turn to Miami’s outside bid to fight their way into the MLS playoffs
Fans were everywhere in Messi jerseys on Saturday night before the final against Nashville
Miami emerged victorious in all seven of Messi’s games, but two of them were sanctioned – a chance they won’t get in the league. Plus, teams are getting smarter in how they approach this new Miami.
The Philadelphia Union came second in the first half of their semi-final against Miami last week, but when they attacked with two forwards in the second, they created plenty of chances.
Nashville squeezed the midfield tight in the first half on Saturday night and before Messi’s stroke of genius he was forced to search deep for the ball, facing his own goal. Within 90 minutes he was chained up pretty well – he scored with a bit of magic and a second nearly came on a shot from 25 yards out which fired into the post, rather than dismantling the defence.
Teams will also become a little less starstruck. Every stadium is jam-packed for Messi and it will impact Miami’s opponents too – many will raise their game for him as the world watches.
Miami also has a busy schedule. The celebrations would have been dampened on Saturday night with a US Open semi-final slated for Wednesday against Cincinnati – the runaway Eastern Conference leaders Miami is last in.
“We will be ready – we have to be,” Yedlin said after Saturday’s win. “This is an opportunity to win another trophy. It’s great that we were able to win this one while we’re still learning on the go.
Of course, as Yedlin said, Miami is getting better too. They are more tactically shrewd under Tata Martino – with all due respect to his predecessor Phil Neville – and Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have spread quality throughout the team.
Messi scored a superb goal for Miami in the final – but Miami needs more heroism
Sergio Busquets joined Miami at the same time as Messi and says it’s been intense so far
“It’s been a frenetic month,” Busquets said on Saturday night. “A lot of games, home and away. It all happened so fast. But we had a great tournament, ending today in an exciting way with a penalty shootout.
Busquets was superb, putting in the works hard when it counted on Saturday, especially under pressure from Nashville. Always show the ball, keep it, move it, avoid trouble.
The hard work is about to start again for Miami when they return to MLS action in the Big Apple against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night. If they fought their way into the top nine, that would really be something special.
From there, they’ll have as good a shot at MLS glory as anyone. Let’s hope America keeps watching.