In arguably the biggest sports deal in American history, Lionel Messi‘s move to Major League Soccer is seismic for the sport’s growth in the U.S. The superstar will face a new challenge at Inter Miami CF after winning numerous club trophies at Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as international titles such as the World Cup with Argentina.
So far, Messi’s Miami era couldn’t have started any better. In less than two months, he’s already helped them win one title (the Leagues Cup tournament that featured all MLS and Liga MX teams). He also has Miami on the verge of another trophy as the team is in the U.S. Open Cup final on Sept. 27 against the Houston Dynamo.
As as for the actual MLS Cup? Miami currently sits in 14th place at the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference standings, and with 11 games left in the regular season, Miami must reach ninth place to have a chance to reach the playoffs. If Miami gets to ninth, it will play the eighth-place team in a wild-card match to qualify for Round 1 of the MLS Cup playoffs.
So far, Messi’s tally is:
Games played: 9
In all, Messi could win three trophies in his debut MLS season:
Leagues Cup: ACHIEVED; 1-1 (10-9 pens.) over Nashville SC
U.S. Open Cup: Final; next game Sept. 27 vs. Houston Dynamo
MLS Cup: 14th place in Eastern Conference (top nine sides qualify for playoffs); next game Aug. 31 vs. Nashville SC
Check in here as ESPN tracks all of Messi’s appearances for Inter Miami and provides instant analysis and reaction.
Aug. 26, MLS debut: New York Red Bulls vs. Inter Miami
Messi needed just a few seconds for his unparalleled skills to shine; a flash of brilliance that capped a memorable Major League Soccer debut. His dazzling goal in the 89th minute helped a transformed Inter Miami beat the New York Red Bulls 2-0 and end an 11-match league winless streak.
A record crowd of 26,276 arrived at Red Bull Arena in the Red Bulls’ first home sellout this season, and resale tickets were listed for over $1,000 leading to the game.
Left on the bench, Messi entered the game in the 60th minute along with former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets, but chants of “We Want Messi!” began in the sixth minute and a loud “Mes-si!” “Mes-si!” reverberated throughout in the 35th.
Ahead on a 37th-minute goal by Diego Gómez, Miami made it safe late on as Busquets sent a cross to Jordi Alba just inside the penalty area and, with his back to the ground and left leg raised, Alba used the side of his foot to center the ball to Messi. The 36-year-old star settled the ball to keep it from defender Peter Stroud, dribbled to his right and threaded a pass between Andrés Reyes and Daniel Edelman to 18-year-old American Benjamin Cremaschi.
As goalkeeper Carlos Coronel moved to cover his near post, Cremaschi beat defender John Tolkin and one-touched the ball back to Messi. He sprinted toward goal and let it bounce off his left foot and in into the unguarded net from three yards for his 11th goal in nine games for Miami in all competitions.
Aug. 23, U.S. Open Cup semifinals: Inter Miami vs. FC Cincinnati
After that seven-game stretch and the Leagues Cup trophy lift, you would expect a hangover from Miami. Traveling to FC Cincinnati, the best team so far in the MLS regular season? On few days rest after that dramatic win in Nashville? Facing the raucous crowd at Cincy’s TQL Stadium? This felt like the game where Messi’s high-flying ways would finally land.
But once again Miami pulled off the win on penalties after a 3-3 draw to clinch a spot in the final of the U.S. Open Cup, to be played Sept. 27.
Messi looked fatigued all night, which was understandable after his torrid start with Miami. He lacked his trademark crispness in the midfield and rarely challenged Cincy’s backline throughout the game.
Nonetheless, down by two after goals from Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vázquez, Messi finally sprang to life when he whipped in a free kick to Lionel Campana for a header in the 68th minute. And then, with mere moments left in full-time and Miami needing a second goal, the two Leos connected again for another well-placed header.
Josef Martinez scored in extra-time to briefly put Miami ahead before Yuya Kubo equalized the game and sent it to penalties.
And just like in the Nashville game, Miami keeper Drake Callender was clutch in goal as he thwarted Nick Hagglund’s attempt — allowing Benjamin Cremaschi to convert and sending the visitors through.
For the first time since joining Miami, Messi failed to notch a goal. However, the dream of yet another trophy — and in this case, the oldest competition in American soccer — remains alive for him.
Messi’s magical moments throughout Inter Miami’s Leagues Cup run
Relive some of Lionel Messi’s best moments during Inter Miami’s run to lifting the Leagues Cup trophy.
Aug. 19, Leagues Cup final: Nashville SC vs. Inter Miami
“¡Campeones! ¡Campeones! ¡Olé Olé Olé!”
Okay, so it may not be the Champions League or the World Cup, but Messi helping Miami beat Nashville SC on penalties after a 1-1 draw and lifting the Leagues Cup trophy is fairly remarkable.
It gives Messi 42 senior titles, which breaks a tie with his former Barcelona teammate Dani Alves for most in men’s soccer history — and it surprised no one to see Messi win both Golden Boot (most goals with 10) and tournament MVP honors.
And Messi already is the 3rd-best goal scorer in Inter Miami club history (Gonzalo Higuaín has 29 and Leo Campana has 16).
In this tourney’s seven-game stretch, Messi scored in every game — including one on Saturday at Geodis Park against a tough Nashville team that had beaten some pretty potent sides (FC Cincinnati, Club America, Monterrey) on the way to hosting the final.
After a feisty opening period, Messi took advantage of a momentary bit of chaos in the 23rd minute, when a wayward clearance fell to him at the top of the box. He danced around Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman with the help of a slight deflection, and he fired past Elliot Panicco in the Nashville goal. Nashville’s 57th-minute equalizer was as ugly as Messi’s was sublime, as a header from Fafà Picault deflected into the net off Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender.
After regulation time ended, it was time for penalties. After 11 rounds, Callender turned hero when he took he converted his attempt and saved Panicco’s, giving Miami its first trophy in franchise history.
Aug. 15, Leagues Cup semifinal: Philadelphia Union vs. Inter Miami
Not even a month has passed since Messi joined Miami and he already has nine goals in six games. And he now he has the team on the cusp of silverware.
Inter Miami’s 4-1 win on the road over the Philadelphia Union sealed a spot in the Leagues Cup final, as well as a berth in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup. Mind you, this is the same club that remains in last place of the MLS regular-season standings.
The trip to Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, to face a defensively stout Philly team (usually) was meant to be Messi’s toughest test yet, but a quick goal by Josef Martínez in the third minute put Miami in the driver’s seat for the rest of evening. It was then Messi who doubled the lead in the 20th minute when he found a soft spot in the Union’s midfield and fired a low bouncing shot from 30 yards out past keeper Andre Blake.
With Jordi Alba’s goal right before halftime, Miami was able to withstand a second-half surge from Philly that saw Alejandro Bedoya pull one back in the 73rd minute. Miami youngster David Ruiz then padded the lead with a goal in the final minutes to seal the win.
And talk about a Messi effect: Miami has scored at least four goals in four of its six Leagues Cup games (including three straight). Miami entered the Leagues Cup having scored at least four goals in just three of its 122 games played across all competitions.
Aug. 11, Leagues Cup quarterfinal: Inter Miami vs. Charlotte FC
Congrats, Charlotte! Y’all kept Messi from scoring until the final moments of the game. The bad news? Miami were already ahead by a wide margin and then comfortably won 4-0, booking a spot into the Leagues Cup semifinals.
It took the Miami fans at DRV PNK Stadium by surprise that see Josef Martínez line up for a penalty shot in the 12th minute instead of Messi, but the Venezuelan made no question with a strike to the bottom corner of the net.
And how about Robert Taylor? He has really blossomed since Messi’s arrival last month. He doubled Miami’s lead in the 32nd minute connecting on DeAndre Yedlin’s pass at the top of the 18-yard box. The 28-year-old Finland international now has four goals and four assists (plus one own goal) in five Leagues Cup games.
Charlotte defender Adilson Malanda padded Miami’s lead with an own goal in the 78th minute and Miami was on cruise control before Messi finally got on the scoreboard, slotting the ball into the net from Leonardo Campana’s nifty cross.
With eight goals now, Messi once again is tied with Martínez for the team lead this season. Martínez has played 25 games to Messi’s five.
Miami can now look toward tough road trip to Philadelphia next week for a spot in the final. And Charlotte can take solace in that it’ll host Messi once the MLS regular season kicks off later in the month.
Aug. 6, Leagues Cup round of 16: FC Dallas vs. Inter Miami
In the stifling Texas heat where the temperatures hovered above 100 degrees at kickoff, Messi’s hot start with Miami continued with two more goals in a wild win over FC Dallas that ended 4-4 before being decided by penalties.
In his first away game with Miami, Messi initially made it look easy when he hit a rocket shot in the sixth minute to put his side up early.
What then ensued was a back-and-forth game that provided plenty of fireworks at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. With 10 minutes left in regulation and Miami down 4-2 after Robert Taylor’s own goal, Dallas defender Marco Farfan returned the favor when he headed the ball into his own net — off a Messi corner kick.
Down by a goal with five minutes to go, it was then time for another moment for a Messi highlight reel. The Argentina superstar scored his second of the night on an incredible free kick that curled into the top corner to tie the game.
Going into penalties to decide who’d advance to the Leagues Cup quarterfinal, Messi converted his attempt and Benjamin Cremaschi (who scored Miami’s third in regulation) then sealed the victory with his successful strike from the spot.
Messi has now scored multiple goals in three straight matches for club or country for the first time since April-May 2015, when he was still with Barcelona.
Aug. 2, Leagues Cup round of 32: Inter Miami vs. Orlando City
Another brace for the captain as Miami beat Florida rivals Orlando City 3-1 at DRV PNK Stadium and advanced to Round of 16 of the Leagues Cup tournament.
A nearly two-hour long rain delay didn’t throw off Messi’s rhythm as he scored seven minutes in when he controlled from a pass from Robert Taylor before smashing the ball past goalkeeper Pedro Gallese from six yards out.
Orlando leveled the game before halftime but Miami re-took the lead after a questionable penalty was given to Josef Martínez, who then converted it from the spot and gave his team the lead again.
Messi then put a stamp on the game when he again scored from close range on an assist from Martinez.
The win also saw the Miami debut of defender Jordi Alba, another former Barcelona star alongside Messi and Sergio Busquets. With that trio, Miami concluded its transfer business earlier in the week officially signing three highly-rated youngsters — midfielders Diego Gomez and Facundo Farías and center back Tomás Avilés.
July 25, Leagues Cup group stage: Inter Miami vs. Atlanta United
What a performance for Messi in his first start for Miami. A first-half brace and an assist in an emphatic 4-0 win over Atlanta United, which secured Miami’s spot into the knockout round of the Leagues Cup.
It didn’t take long for Messi to get on the scoreboard. With his former Barcelona teammate, Sergio Busquets, lofting a perfect ball over Atlanta’s defense, Messi initially missed his first attempt but put back the rebound from his own shot past keeper Brad Guzan to give Miami an early lead in the eighth minute.
Messi then added another goal on a counterattack in the 22nd minute, pushing Atlanta’s backline and laying the ball off to Robert Taylor, who then cut it back with Messi calmly slotting into the net.
Messi also played a key role in the other two goals — both scored by Taylor. In Miami’s fourth of the night, Messi raced down the pitch to isolate Atlanta’s Ronald Hernandez and teed the ball to Taylor, his left flank, who connected with a low shot past a beleaguered Guzan.
Along with the goals, the celebrities are rolling in for the Messi show. With LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian at the previous game, this game saw even more A-listers in attendance at DRV PNK Stadium — including Sean “Diddy” Combs, DJ Khaled, Rauw Alejandro and Camila Cabello.
July 21, Leagues Cup group stage: Inter Miami vs. Cruz Azul
Messi made his long-awaited debut for Miami in the 54th minute, with his new club holding a one-goal lead early in the second half. However it wouldn’t take long for the Liga MX team to get back into the game, with Uriel Antuna thumping a low shot beyond Drake Callender after some lax defending gave him room to shoot.
In the final minutes, Messi thought he’d beaten the offside trap and set up Josef Martinez for a simple, open goal tap-in but was judged late on to have been behind the final defender.
Then in the 93rd minute, Messi was fouled by midfielder Jesus Duenas, giving him a chance to win the game with a free-kick. And, in typical Messi fashion, he curled it beyond Andres Gudino with his left foot, into the top corner, to give Inter Miami a 2-1 win in their Leagues Cup opener at DRV PNK Stadium.
POST AUTHOR: ESPN