It would be silly at this point to expect anything different than what happened in the 85th minute on Sunday night in Frisco, Texas.
Since arriving in the U.S., Lionel Messi has done nothing but deliver for Inter Miami. So, as he lined up a free kick from the right side of the box in the waning minutes of the game, his team trailing by a goal, everyone knew what was coming. And yet, even so.
“When you actually see it happening,” Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said, “it’s kind of surreal.”
FC Dallas’ wall timed its jump perfectly. Goalkeeper Maarten Paes covered as much space as he could with a dive and an outstretched arm. And yet, Messi’s free kick curled toward the upper corner, kissing ever so slightly off the bottom of the crossbar before hitting the net.
Messi. Free kick. Inevitable. pic.twitter.com/ykUh52xqDP
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 7, 2023
The score was tied, 4-4. Inter Miami, down two goals just minutes before, had pulled even.
Messi had delivered another signature moment in a Miami shirt.
His first game was less than three weeks ago. Somehow, that free kick against Cruz Azul feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened since. Two goals and an assist against Atlanta United. Two more goals against Orlando City. Even earlier in the night, Messi needed just six minutes to score against FC Dallas.
So how could what happened 79 minutes after that first goal come as a surprise?
“No,” Miami defender Sergii Kryvtsov said. There was no surprise.
“I knew it.”
The game against FC Dallas was far from perfect. Miami looked susceptible again defensively, and at times were wide open in transition. They trailed by two goals twice in the game. FC Dallas seemed firmly in control — up 4-2 after 68 minutes.
And yet Miami never felt completely out of it. Not with Messi on the field.
The Argentine legend clearly cares. When Dallas took the lead, Messi smacked his legs in frustration. Even with his team down two goals, it was clear he was going to find a way to push the team back into the game, or at least to do everything he could to try.
When FC Dallas opened the door for Messi on Marco Farfan’s near-comical own goal — a powered header off a Messi free kick, only into his own net — Messi smelled the blood. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet. What had been an almost tame crowd in the first half was now fully invested and alive. And when the whistle blew for a foul in that danger zone, the same expectation hovered over the crowd as it did that night against Cruz Azul on July 21. There was a buzz.
And just like that night against Cruz Azul, Messi delivered.
“It’s not explainable, to be honest,” Miami defender DeAndre Yedlin said. “That’s kind of what we were talking about in the locker room. It’s just not human-like, so hopefully he can keep that going. I’m sure he will.”
At this point, Messi has been everything MLS could have hoped. He is engaged on the field. His competitiveness hasn’t dropped. With seven goals in his first four games, he’s as deadly as he has been throughout his career. Not since Didier Drogba netted seven goals in his first six games for Montreal Impact in 2015 has a big-name star lived up to the hype that preceded his debut. And Messi has done so with far more attention on him.
When Messi arrived, Miami was a last-place team that seemed to lack direction. Plenty changed around the Argentine star, for sure. Tata Martino was hired as head coach. Sergio Busquets arrived alongside him. Jordi Alba made his first start on Sunday night against Dallas, and three young South American players have also been added to the team.
Still, it’s clear that the catalyst for change has revolved around Messi. He’s been superb. And to watch him perform the way he has each week forces you to consider how he might be able to change the league.
A few weeks ago, after the MLS board of governors meeting in Washington D.C., Miami owner Jorge Mas was asked what would signify success after signing Messi. How many trophies would they need to win?
He shook his head.
“We’re successful,” he said. “We’ve succeeded.”
What’s happening right now on the field is important. Messi’s tenure will undoubtedly be judged differently and considered differently if he wins trophies in MLS. But the show he’s putting on is more important even than the results.
Messi is must-watch TV. He is pulling eyeballs to the league. Sunday night was a wild game. Two own goals and some ugly defending. But it also had some special moments. And Messi made it memorable — and that will make people tune in again.
Ultimately, what the league does with that ability will determine how successful his time in MLS will be. But Mas was right — just getting him here to deliver these moments was crucial.
(Top photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)