Lionel Messi eyes Leagues Cup prize after flying start at revitalised Inter Miami

Veteran captain, along with former Barca teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, leads new team to first ever final

Lionel Messi scores for Inter Miami in their Leagues Cup semi-final win over Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park Stadium on August 15, 2023. AFP
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There was still plenty for Lionel Messi to do when he picked up the ball just past the halfway line as Inter Miami launched a counter-attack in their Leagues Cup semi-final clash with Philadelphia Union.

With only one teammate in front of him and the home defence slow to close him down, the veteran Argentine carried the ball forward before unleashing a 30-yard drive that skidded along the turf, past goalkeeper Andre Blake before hitting the bottom corner.

It was a goal that summed up the flying start that Messi has made to his MLS career since moving to Miami. The 36-year-old has now scored nine times in just six games for his new club and his tenth match will be Saturday's final against Nashville SC.

“I think if you’re even a Union fan, you should respect and love how Messi plays the game and how he is as a human being and as a teammate," said Union coach Jim Curtin on Tuesday.

“I mean, we tried our best,” midfielder Daniel Gazdag added. “Obviously, he’s the greatest player of all time. It’s not easy to lock him down.”

Miami have won every game since Messi's arrival and their next match will be the club's first final in what is only their fourth season since the club's inception in 2020. Victory also means they qualify for the Concacaf Champions Cup regional tournament next season and could, potentially, end with them playing in the 2025 Fifa Club World Cup.

This Messi bump has seen the team score 21 goals as they rampaged through the Leagues Cup competition – a World Cup-style knockout tournament contested by teams from Mexico and the US.

Among the scorers against Philadelphia was Messi's former Barca teammate Jordi Alba while Sergio Busquets, another of his Camp Nou contemporaries, was also in the starting line-up at Subaru Park.

"They [Messi, Busquets, and Alba] pass on this confidence to the younger players and [Messi] has this commitment to the game,' said manager Tata Martino, who was Messi's coach at Barca. "He's working a lot, especially on recovery balls and this is infectious to his teammates."

On and off the pitch, the Messi influence has been immediate.

Ahead of his first game for the club – a 2-1 win over Cruz Azul when Messi, inevitably, scored the injury-time winner – defender DeAndre Yedlin revealed that Messi gave each of his teammates a pair of Beats by Dre headphones in the club colours of pink and black.

After the 3-1 over Orlando City, Yedlin made clear the impact Messi – who scored twice in that game – was having not just on Miami, but on opposition players.

"He just gives everyone around him confidence. You can give him balls in difficult situations and know he's going to make something out of it," said the former Newcastle United full-back.

"The flipside is that for the teams we're playing against, it puts a bit of fear in their eyes. They're dropping back on their heels a bit and that gives us more space to play."

Home-grown teenager David Ruiz, who scored the final goal against Philadelphia, admitted that everyone was soaking up the vast knowledge of the former Barca trio.

“It's changed a lot. Everybody has a winning mentality, and everybody's ready to play every tournament, win every game, and every final. They’re players that obviously just try and give advice," he said.

"We're like, young and stuff, we try to run everywhere. That's something that they just told us: 'Oh, just maintain more your position, that the ball’s going to get to you. Stop running for the ball too much where you’re just trapping yourself' – things like that."

After playing the 42nd final of his career against Nashville at their home ground of Geodis Park at the weekend, Messi must turn his attentions to revitalising Miami's MLS fortunes.

They currently sit rock bottom of the Eastern Conference and their points total of 18 is the lowest in the entire MLS. But if they can maintain their current hot streak for the final 12 games, it is by no means beyond the realms of possibility that a play-off place can be achieved

DC United are currently ninth – the final play-off place pot – in the 15-team division, 12 points ahead of Martino's men but with Messi and Co at the helm, anything is possible.

“The whole complexion of the team has changed incredibly,” said Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya on Tuesday. “When you have guys of that calibre, I mean, they just exude confidence ∓and you can see everybody’s confidence just go up.”

But the final word goes to Curtin: "They might already be the best team in the league. That's coming and I don't think anything's stopping them.”

Updated: August 17, 2023, 5:36 AM