Inter Miami CF 2-0 Real Salt Lake (Feb 21, 2024) Game Analysis – ESPN


Lionel Messi helped set up both goals and Inter Miami survived extended second-half pressure from Real Salt Lake to earn a 2-0 victory in Major League Soccer’s season opener on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Robert Taylor scored late in the first half, and Diego Gomez added another in the second for Miami, which was dominant before the break but inferior after it and probably fortunate to still be in the lead when Gomez added on.

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Messi was in midseason form, darting through and around defenders, almost giving the sellout crowd what they wanted to see with a goal from a free kick and then one from a corner kick midway through the first half.

“I think the eyes of the world are on Inter Miami, and I’m hoping that they’re able to deliver on that and whatever expectations people have,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who was at Wednesday’s match. “Mostly, I’d just like his experience to be good, the experience of the team to be successful, how they’re positioned both here in the league but also around the world.

“That’s the story that I think is most important to us.”

Messi had 11 goals in 14 total matches with Inter Miami last season, leading the team to a Leagues Cup championship — its first-ever trophy — shortly after he stunned much of the soccer world by signing a 2 1/2-year contract worth around $150 million. He appeared in only six MLS matches in 2023, scoring once. Injuries slowed him late in the 2023 season and Inter Miami, which was way out of the postseason picture when Messi joined last summer, didn’t make the MLS playoffs.

But the craze surrounding him is not fading. The lines for fans to buy his jersey, which was MLS’ top seller last year and has a new sponsor design this year, was out the door of the team store. He had the assist on the first goal and set up Luis Suarez — one of his former Barcelona teammates, like fellow Inter Miami stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — with the pass that Suarez turned into the assist on Gómez’s goal.

“I’m so happy,” Suarez said after the match in which his new team looked every bit like a contender. That wasn’t the case in the exhibition season.

Lionel Messi celebrates with Miami teammate Robert Taylor after the pair combined for a goal against Real Salt Lake.

Inter Miami started its season with an international preseason tour with seven matches in five different countries — netting roughly 25,000 miles of travel, a total of eight goals, multiple apologies to refund-seeking fans after Messi missed a game in Hong Kong because of injury, and just one win.

But they completely controlled the first half of Wednesday’s match against a team that comfortably made the Western Conference playoffs last season. Messi even flicked the ball around Salt Lake defender Andrew Brody who was injured and down near the top of the penalty box late in the half, weaving around him with ease. Brody was able to stay in the game.

“If anybody had been skeptical about what this team can do, I think the first half showed them,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said. “I saw [Messi] playing free on the field. And with the same fine touch he always had. And he showed some speed too.

“He has a characteristic that no other player has. He grabs the ball very far from the rival goal and the feeling he gives is that he will generate something and will end in a goal situation. The play he had alone against two players at the end of the game is a sign that he is good physically and also happy to be on the pitch.”

It should be noted that the club has yet to win a playoff match. Inter Miami has been to the playoffs twice, getting eliminated right away on both occasions, both times by 3-0 scores.

“You don’t have to jump the gun,” Martino said. “It was just one game.”

But Messi moves the needle — every needle — that much. He turns 37 in June and the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner still attracts attention on and off the field like almost no one else in sports. Apple TV released the first episode of “Messi’s World Cup: The Rise of a Legend” on Wednesday, and the streaming service (which has a 10-year deal worth at least $2.5 billion with MLS) was part of the group that pitched Messi during his process of deciding whether to join the league last year.

Apple hasn’t released numbers, but senior vice president Eddy Cue said Wednesday that he was “shocked” by how successful Year 1 of Messi in MLS was.

“We had a tremendous first season,” Cue said. “The amount of viewership was way over what we ever expected. The amount of time that people were watching games is more than any sport that I’ve seen.”

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