Messi proves difference-maker to power Miami past Red Bulls

MIAMI — No one inside Chase Stadium on Saturday night could have predicted what was to come at halftime. Inter Miami CF were losing 1-0 at home to New York Red Bulls as the teams came back out after the break. Forty-five minutes later, Lionel Messi broke the MLS record for most goal contributions in a single match in a 6-2 victory.

The Argentine forward had already set up one goal for Matías Rojas before he scored himself, and he then assisted another for Rojas and all three Luis Suárez goals in spectacular fashion.

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Dante Vanzeir had opened the scoring for the Red Bulls, giving the Herons flashbacks of their dreadful first confrontation with New York this season when they lost 4-0 at the Red Bull Arena on March 23. Inter Miami had played through the international break and also missed several players through injury-induced absences.

Messi missed the game with a hamstring injury, though he would have been away with Argentina if fit, watching from afar as Miami faced a difficult challenge.

The lack of offensive options forced Martino into a 5-3-2 lineup with Suarez and Leonardo Campana leading the attack. It only took the Red Bulls three minutes to score.

Vanzeir supplied Lewis Morgan with a through ball, inspiring the No. 9 to complete the right-footed strike from just outside the box into the lower left corner of the goal. Defender Tomás Avilés struggled.

Morgan scored a hat trick, while Wikelman Carmona celebrated his first contribution of the season. The Herons concluded the night with seven shots, two on target, 70% possession and no goals. Miami was dumbfounded.

“There is not much to say, except that we were outmatched from start to finish,” Martino said after that first meeting. “When a team enters a game without the desire to win, without spirit, without competing, and the other side just wants to win the game, they are going to win it.”

Six weeks later, the first half gave the impression that the Red Bulls might just be Miami’s kryptonite. Only this time around, Inter Miami boasted their not-so-secret weapon.

After halftime, Messi returned to the pitch with vengeance. After just three minutes he quickly worked the ball on the right, finding a pocket of space to provide Rojas with the perfect pass to complete the left-footed strike.

Two minutes later, Messi found the back of the net himself with a shot into the net from the center of the box. The equalizer calmed Miami’s nerves and frazzled the opponent. The rainstorm of goals persisted until Suarez completed his first MLS hat trick.

“It’s easier with Leo,” Suarez said. “Obviously we know each other, and sometimes you’ll notice we know where the other is and do movements without having to look at one another. It’s good for the team.”.

Messi and Suárez now have a league-leading 10 goals each, and the Argentina star also leads MLS in assists with 12.

Head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has been witness to many of Messi’s phases, coaching him at Barcelona from 2013-14 and with Argentina from 2014 to 2016. He also faced the forward while coaching the Paraguayan and Mexican national teams.

But even after watching him for years, Martino emphasized the impactful performance against the Red Bulls will be difficult to witness again.

“Messi had exceptional games in Barcelona, during my time with him,” Martino said. “But I also remember a semifinal with Paraguay in the Copa America in Chile, where he didn’t score a goal and he was still the best player on the field. In Barcelona, he had a game against Valencia where we were losing 2-0 and then won 3-2 with three goals from him.

“And there was another against Sevilla where we were losing 1-0 and then he scored three goals and we won 4-1. I always say this, and it’s redundant at this point, but he always does something new. To have involvement in all six goals of a team’s 6-2 is something that will be difficult to see again.”

As so many predicted, Messi has become an integral part of Inter Miami’s success.

“He’s not the key component just because of this game,” Martino concluded. “He always is. Today, the association between Messi and Luis in the second half worked well, like old times. When they find each other, the team is able to back them up in the game, and when we find space, they are very influential in the game.

“There is a reason MLS has Designated Players, and he is ours. So, when he is missing, the team feels it.”

Since he made his debut in July 2023, Inter Miami is 2-4-6 (WDL) when he does not play and 15-7-3 when he is on the pitch across all competitions.

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