Lionel Messi Shared The Spotlight
10:54 AM EDT on August 20, 2023
When Lionel Messi signed with Inter Miami, he instantly became the biggest and most exciting story in American soccer. Some of that has to do with American soccer, but the bigger part was that, well, it's Messi. The presence of a generation-defining superstar guaranteed that more eyes than ever would be trained on MLS and, especially, the Leagues Cup. We here at Defector are guilty of getting caught up in Messimania, and I even made a day trip down to Chester, Pennsylvania—an exurb I had never really heard of before this past week—to see Messi play in person. So far, the show has been every bit as remarkable as anticipated, with the greatest player of all time leading the worst team in MLS—prior to his arrival, anyway—to the Leagues Cup final. On Saturday night, Nashville felt like the perfect stage for one more match of Messi magic.
Messi, of course, delivered:
I might not like MLS's production style all that much, but thankfully they do provide a lot of angles for Messi's goals, including this delightful reverse angle:
What can you even say here? MLS defending has been put under a microscope since Messi arrived and subsequently, instantly went nuts with scoring. It's fair to critique the quality of backlines that Messi has faced over the last month; it is fair, often, to be a little rude about it. Not this time, though. What else could the Nashville defense do here? They put five guys around and in front of Messi, and all it amounted to was giving those players ideal vantage points from which to watch a near-deity blast a perfect shot into the top corner of the goal. It is mystifying to see in motion, with all due respect to USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman, who got absolutely shook:
Zimmerman can take some solace here, though, as not even the best defense in Europe could have prevented that from being a goal. After 23 minutes, the Leagues Cup final looked like yet another Inter Messiami (sorry) moment, another joyous addition to the legendary career of a player who is way too good for his current competition. But something interesting happened on the way to the trophy for Miami, though: Someone actually stole Messi's spotlight.
Before that happened, Nashville had to get back into the game, and to the hosts' credit, they did just that in the 57th minute, as Fafà Picault dove down to head a ball at ground level, which he hit into Benjamin Cremaschi's leg. The ball did the rest, bouncing into Miami goalie Drake Callender and subsequently into the goal. It was perhaps the aesthetic opposite of Messi's wonder-strike, but Nashville had equalized it all the same:
That's the way regular time ended in Nashville, despite Miami substitute Leonardo Campana's own best attempt to steal the spotlight with the last action of the game:
Had Miami lost, I guess Campana would have been the main story from this one. Luckily for him, the penalty shootout that followed regular time—the Leagues Cup skips extra time in favor of getting straight to the drama, unfair though that drama often is—was finally the time and place for one of Messi's new teammates to make a name for himself. That player was Drake Callender, and the keeper who was so unlucky on Nashville's goal who would soon turn into the hero.
It's wild to think that the star of the shootout was one of the goalies, though, given that there's no way to overstate how good most of these spot kicks were.
After Messi's low opener got the shootout started, the parade of rockets into the goal, specifically the ones that went side netting and to the roof of the goal, was enthralling. It also made the three saved penalties in the shootout, which went so long that everyone got to hit one (more on that in a second), all the more dramatic.
First up was Callender, who guessed wrong on Randall Leal's penalty but still managed to kick-save it out. That put Miami at its first advantage of the shootout, one it would keep as the next four takers all buried their penalties, setting up the side's all-time appearances leader Victor Ulloa for the winner. It was not to be, though, as Nashville keeper Elliot Panicco got a good jump off the line and saved Ulloa's kick to his right, sending the shootout into sudden death.
This is where the tension grew to unbearable levels, thanks to a noticeable increase in penalty kick quality. What can you even do as a goalkeeper when a center back, in this case Miami's Serhiy Kryvtsov, is roofing spot kicks against you? The answer, it turns out, is nothing, and as kicker after kicker stepped up and buried their turns, two conflicting outcomes began to get closer to reality.
The first is my favorite part of any shootout: As the amount of penalty takers on each team hit double digits with the final outfield player for each, the prospect of goalkeeper penalties became a near-certainty. The second approaching moment of note was that, if the goalies made their kicks, the script would then flip back to the title page, and Lionel Messi would take a second penalty in the shootout. Given how this Leagues Cup has gone since his arrival, with Messi already furnishing a game-winning free kick and a game-tying free kick and goal after goal after goal, it would have felt cosmically apropos for Messi to carry Miami one last time by scoring the final penalty, and winning the club's first trophy.
Drake Callender said "no, thank you" to all that, though. First up in the goalie-on-goalie part of the shootout, Callender might have kicked the very best spot kick of all, hooking his take into the roof, over a diving Panicco:
Callender then took to the goal-line as Panicco stepped up, and dove at the perfect height to his left to block his counterpart's best attempt at extending this shootout at least one more round. With that, Miami rejoiced:
Listen, I know that Callender will still be overshadowed by Messi here, and it's not even wrong to do so. But that was a great penalty shootout performance from the 25-year-old, who also had a fantastic showing against Philadelphia on Tuesday. Most of the penalties Callender did not save were patently unsaveable, and the ones he could get to, he did. Combine that with his own take, and Callender was rightfully named the man of the match of the final. This wasn't a case of the old Barcelona joke—MOTMOTM, which stood for "Man Of The Match Other Than Messi"—either. Callender was just as instrumental, if not more, in Miami winning its first final and its first trophy. Messi carried them to that point, joyously, but his joy was equaled after the final for his new teammate, who was just eight years old when Messi was appearing in his first World Cup.
This game captured both the dissonance and the thrill of seeing Messi in an Inter Miami jersey, and the eyes of the world rightfully drifted from being glued to Messi to being mesmerized first by the quality of penalties and then by the one-two Callender punch to win the game. If this is what Messi can do for MLS, and by that I mean bring in viewers on his own who then get to see others shine brightly in his shadow, then everybody wins. For one night, Drake Callender got to know what it must feel like to be Lionel Messi, and Miami is a trophy richer for his efforts.