With Messi injured, Inter Miami’s roadshow becomes the Luis Suarez show in D.C.

WASHINGTON — The worshippers streamed down South Capitol Street, past bootleggers hawking pink apparel, toward a traveling circus whose headliner, Lionel Messi, never showed.

They snaked toward Audi Field on a heavenly Saturday afternoon, through territory that typically belongs to D.C. United. They donned No. 10 jerseys — some pink, some albiceleste, some blaugrana, all accompanied by a legendary last name.

They’d paid hundreds of dollars to see the Messi roadshow. They were mostly, though not entirely aware that Messi had injured a hamstring and stayed home. They wove, nevertheless, through street vendors touting $40 Inter Miami shirts and $25 bucket hats, some advertising with a single song-like word. “Messi Messi Messi Messi Messiiii,” one vendor crowed.

The fans queued two hours before kickoff. Once inside, some congregated in the Audi Field concourse, craning their necks for a view of the tunnel from which players would emerge. “Did you see Messi?” one hopeful dad excitedly asked the young boy perched on his shoulders, as 22 mortals marched onto the field.

Others, though, had reframed the pilgrimage.

Sure, the star was back in South Florida, but still, “we’re definitely gonna see some world-class people play,” a pre-teen boy in an Argentina Messi jersey told his father en route to the game.

And sure enough, some three hours later, Luis Suarez appeared onstage.

Neither Suarez nor Jordi Alba started Saturday’s MLS game at D.C. United. They watched a relatively uneventful first half end 1-1. Then, early in the second, they trotted down toward the corner flag to warm up — and some adoring fans followed, gathering behind a field-level railing roughly 20 feet away.

They waved to Suarez and shouted his name — “Luis!” “Lucho!” — as the second half droned on over his left shoulder.

They stopped to snap photos and capture video as two helpless stadium ushers implored them to clear the way. “You’re blocking the stairway!” one said with a hint of exasperation and a little force. “One photo, then you gotta go!”

They roared as Suarez raced back down the sideline to enter the fray in the 62nd minute.

Thousands of the 19,365 people in attendance erupted when he put Inter Miami ahead 10 minutes later.

And then they danced, joyously, when Suarez did what he’s done better than anybody else throughout his two decades in professional soccer. He bungled a touch, but then slithered away from D.C. United defenders, and turned a broken play into an inventive goal.

“Suaaaarez,” some fans began to chant. “Suaaaarez!”

They had come to see one legend of the game; instead, they saw another. They saw a 37-year-old mad scientist whose body is aching but whose evil genius is flourishing. Suarez, through four weeks, leads Major League Soccer in both goals and assists. He is arguably the second greatest player MLS has ever seen.

He is, in some sense, a sideshow at Inter Miami, on this unprecedented superteam. Such is the gravity of Messi. Such is the GOAT’s grudging ability to monopolize spotlights.

But with Messi 900 miles away, Suarez stepped in. He led Inter on Sunday to the 3-1 victory, its first win in its last eight matches with Messi absent. He wasn’t individually dominant, but his mere presence brought a deadlocked game to life.

“I mean, you know the quality he has,” Miami midfielder Julian Gressel said with a slight chuckle. “In that sense, yeah, you can always feel a little burst of energy when a player of his quality comes on [as a sub].”

A fan wearing a Lionel Messi jersey watches the second half of an MLS soccer match between DC United and Inter Miami at Audi Field, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

A fan wearing a Lionel Messi jersey watches the second half of an MLS soccer match between DC United and Inter Miami at Audi Field on Saturday in Washington. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

His teammates could also feel energy wafting onto the field, from the crowd. There were thousands of D.C. United fans, but also thousands of newly minted Inter Miami supporters. They were minted by Messi, of course, but they created a unique atmosphere even with Messi absent. Gressel really noticed them in the 90th minute, when D.C. defender Pedro Santos was red-carded. “I think half the stadium was cheering,” Gressel said. “I was like, ‘OK!’” He smiled.

And their hero, at least for an afternoon, was Suarez.

He was the one whom cameras found at the final whistle.

He was the first one sought out by D.C. United youngster Kristian Fletcher for a cherished jersey swap.

He was the one accompanied by Messi bodyguard Yassine Chueko as Inter Miami players ambled toward their team bus, with three points pocketed.

Just outside the loading dock, behind a somewhat see-through fence, dozens of kids and parents awaited them. When Suarez emerged, maté in hand, sporting a backward baseball cap, they squealed. One flung a Barcelona jersey over the railing, apparently in a desperate attempt for an autograph.

Messi’s absence was all but forgotten.

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