A Little Messi Goes A Long Way
9:31 AM EDT on August 16, 2023
CHESTER, Penn. — Prior to Tuesday night's Leagues Cup semifinal between Inter Miami and the hosting Philadelphia Union, I had seen Lionel Messi play in person three times. I saw him take part in two Argentina wins as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in the 2007 Copa América in my home country of Venezuela, and the other time was when he and his Albiceleste crushed my poor Venezuelan Vinotinto in Foxborough at the 2016 Copa América Centenario. While the first two came before Messi was truly Messi, I got to see him in his prime at that third match, just eight days before he would have one last agonizing defeat in a final, capping a string of three of them in a row.
I had made peace with never seeing Messi live again. I don't love friendlies enough to see him if Argentina played one in the United States, and I figured he would retire from international play before the 2026 World Cup. (He still might.) However, one thing I never truly considered was that Messi, the greatest soccer player and maybe athlete I have ever seen, a legend at my favorite club, would ever play in MLS. More to the point, I never thought I would see him play live in something called the Leagues Cup, a tournament I had never heard of before this summer, where it became the launching pad for Messi's Inter Miami career.
The stats heading into Tuesday's match were a cosmic joke: Messi had played in five games for Miami, scored eight goals, and rescued them twice: First, he scored a game-winning free kick in his debut with the team, and then he scored an equalizer free kick against Dallas in the round of 16. Everything that I thought might happen when the best player in the world came to the United States, just six months after being the best player in a World Cup, had been happening. It was glorious to see him dominate, but almost as grand to see him clearly have a lot of fun against MLS-quality defenses.
So, when fellow Defectorite Dan McQuade asked me if I wanted to go to Tuesday's game in not-quite-Philadelphia, I booked a train ticket immediately to catch the Messi carnival in person on its latest stop. "Carnival" really is the correct word to use for the Inter Miami experience as it stands now. Walking into the Union's stadium by the Delaware River, the parking lots brimmed with people wearing the bright pink jerseys of Inter Miami, interspersed with the blue of the Union. Kids kicked balls around in the grassy parts of the lots, vendors sold bootleg jerseys and Messi-imprinted bucket hats, and food vendors lined the streets around the stadium. It reminded me of the first time I saw Messi, in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
But back then, Messi wasn't the main attraction like he was on Tuesday night. I got my first hint that this would be a more combative atmosphere than, say, in Dallas, where it felt like the entire crowd, even the home supporters, were rooting for moments of Messi magic. The Union fans, at least around section 116, were clearly enjoying the role of the rude hosts, heckling anyone wearing a Messi jersey and booing the legend when he came out for warmups. Hell, when Messi was practicing his free kicks and hit one off the post, the jeers were louder than anything I'd experienced at a soccer match before. It felt like a wrestling show, but one where the crowd booed the putative face. Messi, for a night, became late-2000s John Cena.
Those boos never really stopped. Throughout the match, the Union faithful made it clear that Messi wasn't welcome, which made for a contentious atmosphere that, for lack of a better phrase, whipped ass. The Leagues Cup is not to the level of even the CONCACAF Champions League, nevermind the European edition, but these fans made this semifinal, played in a muggy August evening that even a river breeze couldn't cool down, feel like a battle for the soul of soccer in the United States.
The game itself was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps it's not surprising that Inter Miami won 4-1. By bringing Messi and friends into the fray, the club has given itself three top-tier players (Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba being the other two) who still probably could be playing in Europe, if not at Barcelona. Miami came out hot, and it was Venezuelan Josef Martínez who scored first, just three minutes in. Perhaps the most surprising part of the goal was that it involved none of the Barcelona-related imports; Ukranian center back Serhiy Kryvtsov hit the perfect pass for the assist.
And then it was time for Lionel Andrés Messi. In the 20th minute, Messi found himself at the top of the box with the ball. As soon as it came to him, the bass-heavy boos immediately followed, echoing down from all corners of the stadium. However, there was also a breathlessness, provided in part by the Messi fans in the crowd (I'd say the split was like 60-40 in favor of Union fans, though the noise battle clearly went to the home supporters), as the little magician did what he has done for going on two decades. The shot, when it came, looked gorgeous from my end of the field, on the opposite side of the stadium. It was only on seeing the replay on my phone that I thought, Huh, that probably should have been saved.
Not so fast, though. Although it looked on second glance that this was another example of pliant MLS opposition bending to Messi's iron will, the reverse angle, which I didn't see until after the game, proved that this was instead an instance of Messi's superhuman talent. In this case, he saw Union goalkeeper Andre Blake backpedaling and, for the briefest of moments, look back to check his positioning. In that exact moment, with the goalie vulnerable, Messi fired that golden left foot and slotted the ball to the far corner, where Blake had no chance of reaching.
This was as good a decision and shot as Messi has taken, and more perceptive than most players could even think to be, and yet it just felt like Messi being Messi. You could still blame the defense for it; Blake could have done better to protect his far post, and the backline could have left him with less room to get the shot off. But it's Messi, this is just what he does. He even made some history in the process: That goal was apparently his farthest ever, topping a goal against Real Sociedad in 2018. And on Tuesday, it was mostly all that he did.
Seeing Messi in person, in 2023 and with him nearing his 40s, is to see brief bursts of magic in between a lot of standing around. A lot. Dan and I started joking about how little Messi moves when Miami doesn't have the ball, and at the start of the second half, I was able to record a minute-long video of Messi standing in roughly the same 10-yard area before moving slightly. It's very funny to watch the greatest player of all time so clearly checked out from half the game:
To be clear, this isn't an MLS-specific thing. Messi's off-ball idleness has been famous for the better part of a decade now, and it's something his teams simply adapt to as the cost of doing business. A Union fan behind me, when the game sat at 2-0 after Messi's goal, summed it up best: "Philly is doing a good job of containing him, all things considered. Except the goal ... except the goal." On Tuesday, the goal, which technically served as the game-winner, was worth all of the standing around, and even an uncharacteristic miss in the box in the second half.
That miss revived the Union crowd, especially on my side, where it happened just in front of us. Also reviving was the goal by Alejandro Bedoya, which made it 3-1 (Jordi Alba, of all people, had scored a cross-goal shot of his own just before halftime for Miami).
There was no magic left for either the Union or Messi after that, though that didn't stop my entire section from whipping out their phones to try to record a celestial moment any time Messi got the ball past the halfway line. The second moment never came, but he wasn't needed on Tuesday like he had been in previous games during this hilarious run that he's been having.
Messi didn't embarrass the Union, nor did he have to activate his superpowers. He just scored a goal that, of all the players on the field, only he was capable of scoring, and then jogged his way around a nice Tuesday workout of a match. That didn't hinder the crowd, which roared and booed at his every touch, nor did it stop the pink-shirted Messi faithful on hand, there to worship before the feet of D10S, from smiling their way out of the stadium and into the night. They got what they came to see: a goal from Lionel Messi, wearing an MLS team's jersey, live and in person.