Lionel Messi rescues Inter Miami in LA with a Barcelona classic

The stargazers gathered hours before kickoff on opening night of the 2024 Lionel Messi roadshow. Thousands congregated outside Dignity Health Sports Park, queuing to get inside the LA Galaxy’s longtime home, perhaps earlier than ever before. They’d come to get a glimpse of the GOAT; to see a performance; and for 91 minutes, they waited.

Then, like clockwork, they saw the brilliance they’d paid for.

Messi had been stifled, smothered, neutralized for most of Sunday night. But in second-half stoppage time, with his Inter Miami team trailing 1-0, he dipped into his bottomless bag of tricks for an age-old classic.

He tapped in Jordi Alba, and together they made Catalan magic, slicing through the Galaxy defense at will.

It was a routine they’d surely rehearsed hundreds of times over their 10 years together at FC Barcelona — Messi to Alba, Alba back to Messi, back to Alba, back to Messi, and past a helpless goalkeeper, into the back of the net.

It was Messi’s first goal of the young Major League Soccer season. And it earned Miami a 1-1 draw that the Herons really didn’t deserve.

For most of 90-plus minutes under the lights in Carson, California, they’d been battered by the Galaxy, who looked like a youthful team reborn.

For most of those 90-plus minutes, until a soft 88th-minute red card, the hosts exposed Miami’s many frailties. The Galaxy streamed forward, again and again, into space left alarmingly open. They hit multiple posts. They missed glorious chances, including a penalty.

They created enough to score at least three, perhaps even four. They were wasteful, until their umpteenth counterattack in the 75th minute yielded a rebound, which Marky Delgado squared to Dejan Joveljic for a tap-in.

By then, they had provided MLS peers with something of a blueprint for beating Miami. They’d shrunk the field when Miami held the ball. They sat in a mid-block, but their defenders refused to drop too far. They dared Luis Suarez and others to beat them over the top, in behind; Suarez, at 37 years old and clearly hobbled, couldn’t.

They shadowed Sergio Busquets, the one player capable of puncturing their defensive shell from deep. Riqui Puig chased him to and fro, shutting off Miami’s access to its midfield pivot.

And then, when the Galaxy won the ball, they exploded into vast expanses of green grass. They regularly found themselves 4-v-4 or 3-v-3 in transition. They ran at Busquets in the open field. After a misplaced Messi pass led to a 5-v-4, they won an early penalty.

Similar traffic pattern held throughout the first half, and for stretches of the second. The final Expected Goal tally was Galaxy 3.8, Miami 0.9.

LA’s imprecision spared Inter Miami. But other, better MLS opponents won’t be so kind. Miami has problems. It essentially defends 9-on-11. Its fullbacks and midfielders regularly make aggressive runs that leave aging legs exposed.

But no matter how many frailties mount, no matter how many weaknesses make Miami vulnerable, Inter will be in every game it plays because it has the man whom the whole world wants to see.

As the Galaxy tried and failed to extend their lead, Messi lurked.

With every Galaxy missed chance, Messi’s moment felt increasingly inevitable.

When he slid the ball into Jordi Alba’s path, with perfect weight, around 8 p.m., 27,000 people knew precisely what came next. They’d seen it throughout the 2010s on TV. They’ve seen it ever since on demand, on YouTube.

And yet, none of 10 LA players could stop it. Messi to Alba to Messi to Alba to Messi, and poof — blueprints felt meaningless.

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