Inter Miami got embarrassed in Saudi Arabia. Time to panic?


Inter Miami lost its third straight preseason game, 6-0 to Al-Nassr, on Thursday. It bled goals to the Saudi Arabian club, even with Cristiano Ronaldo absent. With Lionel Messi also resting, reportedly protecting against an injury, Miami didn’t score. And naturally, panic began to percolate.

This was Miami’s third goose egg in four preseason friendlies. It was also the most alarming of four feeble displays — a 0-0 draw in El Salvador followed by a 1-0 loss to FC Dallas, a 4-3 loss to Al-Hilal and now a 6-0 spanking.

It triggered frightening memories of the team’s two 2023 pitfalls: a leaky defense and Messi’s fragility.

But no, none of this is cause for overwhelming concern — nor is it evidence that the Saudi Pro League dwarfs MLS.

“It’s still a friendly. It’s still a preseason match,” Miami midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday, prior to the overhyped Al-Nassr showdown. “So we don’t really want to pay too much attention to the result itself.”

It was a meaningless game contrived to attract eyeballs and dollars. It was less than three weeks into a preseason planned less to prepare Inter for its season and more to capitalize on Messi’s commercial pull.

It was always going to kindle debates about the relative strength of MLS and the Saudi league. But those debates are silly. Of course two Saudi superpowers with near-limitless wealth, both midway through dominant seasons, were going to beat a Miami team constrained by a salary cap and still building match fitness — especially if Messi didn’t play.

He began Thursday’s match on the bench. The Miami Herald reported that he felt a “twinge” Monday against Al-Hilal. Discomfort lingered into Wednesday, so he underwent a scan. “As a precaution, based on the test results and how he felt, the coaches and medical staff opted to give [Messi] a few days to recover,” the Herald reported.

Without him, Inter Miami crumbled almost instantly. They were down 1-0 after three minutes, 2-0 after 10 and 3-0 after 13. The third Al-Nassr goal came from former Manchester City center back Aymeric Laporte from inside his own half.

Anderson Talisca, a Brazilian forward formerly of Benfica and Besiktas, completed a hat trick after halftime. The barrage and the final result were both embarrassing, unquestionably. But no, they don’t necessarily portend similar embarrassment in MLS.

Are there reasons to worry? Absolutely. There were long before Thursday, before Messi and friends even embarked on this 25,000-mile globetrotting tour. An already porous defense lost its 2023 anchor, Kamal Miller, in an offseason trade. An unrelenting schedule could once again wear down aging stars. And in general, as coach Tata Martino cautioned last month, superteams “don’t always win.”

Martino and his players are well aware of all these concerns, all these needs for improvement. “In the end, the names are there, the players are there, but we have to be a solid team,” Sergio Busquets said on the eve of preseason.

In an attempt to become one, they’ve piloted a new-ish formation, a 5-3-2 with stacked fullbacks. They shut out El Salvador and largely shut down Dallas. That they failed to score in those two games was unconcerning; they came close while learning to play together. They will pick apart MLS teams; there is little doubt about that.

Against Al-Hilal, they were actually quite impressive. There’s no shame in a 4-3 loss to an unbeaten team dotted with former European stars. Yes, “we got exposed in certain ways,” Gressel said. “And that’s a good thing. That’s what you want to happen in preseason, so that when the season rolls around, you’re up for the challenges.

“So yeah, we’ll work on all those details, about shifting in the back, covering spaces, tracking runners,” he continued. “Obviously some things to work on, which is pretty normal at this point.”

They regressed Thursday. But still, they have three weeks until their MLS opener. They have months until trophies are on the line. Coaches and sporting directors across the league expect Miami to be very good, even if not dominant. Even with Facundo Farías tearing his ACL in the preseason opener and Benjamin Cremaschi out for a few months, those expectations aren’t changing.

The only real worry relates to Messi’s health. He missed or exited several games due to a mysterious hamstring injury last fall. Inter Miami’s handling of the injury was heavily scrutinized. Scrutiny returned Thursday when Messi curiously entered the Al-Nassr match in the 83rd minute. The substitution prompted one baffled question: Why?

But if he is healthy, Inter Miami will be fine. Historically, preseason results mean next to nothing. Miami’s +200 MLS Cup odds haven’t budged. Nor should they.

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