Lionel Messi scored his long-awaited Major League Soccer debut with a late goal to secure Inter Miami’s 2-0 victory over New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
After playing eight games in one month after arriving in South Florida, and leading his new team to a League Cup title and the US Open Cup final, the 36-year-old got a well-deserved rest and started on the bench as Miami returned to league action in New Jersey. .
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The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner entered a roaring reception in the 60th minute, still having enough time to provide the fans with a moment to be appreciated.
He set up and completed the goal, playing a pass that perhaps no one else on the field or pitch could have seen – let alone played – to Benjamin Karimachi before picking the ball back up to finish easily in the 89th minute.
This is Messi’s eleventh goal with his new club and matches the goal he scored in his previous appearance as a substitute on his debut against Cruz Azul on July 21.
With Messi’s effort added to Paraguayan midfielder Diego Gomez’s 37th-minute goal, Miami secured a much-needed win for the star-studded squad on their grueling quest to reach the playoffs later this year.
Miami entered the game with an 11-game winless streak in MLS that included eight defeats and only one road victory this season. Their 22 points was the fewest among the league’s 29 teams, and there was a 12-point gap to clear to reach the playoffs.
Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino thought his side could thrive without Messi for an hour of the game which would be a welcome bonus, especially since the striker will be required for the start of Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers next month.
However, there was undoubtedly an initial disappointment for many viewers at Red Bull Arena and beyond.
The streets around the Red Bull Arena were packed two and a half hours before the match, filled with dozens of speculators and people selling unlicensed Messi shirts. A simulcast of the game was scheduled on a video board in Times Square.
Inside the stadium, fans started chanting “We want Messi” within the first 10 minutes of kick-off.
Instead, there was a chance for Miami’s three young signings from South America, who joined the lesser-known half of Miami’s summer squad alongside Barcelona’s three former great stars – Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Fellow Argentine Facundo Farias took Messi’s place in supporting Leonardo Campana in attack, Gomez provided intensity in midfield, and another Argentine, Thomas Aviles, stopped three Red Bulls in defense.
And it was Gomez who put Miami ahead with his first goal in Miami Pink. After Alba’s half free-kick was cleared, Noah Allen sent the ball back into the penalty area leaving Gomez free to slot it into the bottom corner of the net.
Messi, whose eyes were fixed on the pitch the entire time, rose from the bench to applaud the 20-year-old’s goal and a 1-0 lead.
The noise level rose again at the start of the second half when Messi began warming up on the bench. It wouldn’t be long before he entered the field, appearing on the field in a Major League Soccer game for the first time in more than two and a half months since announcing his stunning decision to pursue his career in the United States.
At that point, Miami was under pressure from the Red Bulls. But the presence of Messi, along with fellow substitute Busquets, allowed Miami to regain their composure and excel.
His late brilliance this time around was just the icing on the cake.