Lionel Messi scored his first MLS goal in his first MLS match. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
The capacity crowd that showed up at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night, didn’t get everything they wanted. But they got an opportunity to see one of the greatest players to ever play the beautiful game log 30 minutes and score a beautiful goal in his MLS debut.
The Red Bulls fans who were there didn’t get exactly what they wanted – a win.
Lionel Messi, who came on as a 60th-minute substitute, scored a stellar goal in the 89th minute to help Inter Miami CF to a 2-0 victory over the Red Bulls.
Miami (3-13-10, 21 points), which entered the day in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference, broke an 11-game winless streak in the league. After winning the Leagues Cup and reaching the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Miami’s next goal is the playoffs, with only eight games left in the regular season.
“We have to win our upcoming matches,” Miami head coach Tata Martino. “As long as we win a lot, our chances of being able to at least make the play-ins will increase. We took a big first step today, but there is still a long way to go.”
Added Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender: “We wanted to carry the momentum from the previous cups here tonight. Our guys stepped up tonight. The players that played tonight did a great job. This game meant a lot to us getting points.”
The Red Bulls (29), who boast an inept attack, dropped to 7-10-8.
OK, you want to know about Messi. who electrified the season-high crowd of 26,276.
He entered the match for Leonardo Campana on the hour. It took a while for him to produce some magic. He did – in the 89th minute to give the visitors some breathing room.
Possessing the ball on the left side of the penalty area, Messi twirled around before sending a pass to Ben Cremaschi on the right side. With the Red Bulls ball watching, Cremaschi sent a return pass to the Argentine superstar and an unmarked Messi had little trouble slotting the ball home into an empty net for an insurance tally.
“He did an amazing finish,” Miami midfielder Noah Allen told Apple TV+. “He’s unbelievable. Every day it’s something new.”
For his first regular season goal for the club 🎉
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) August 27, 2023
It was Messi’s 11th goal in nine matches for Miami, across all competitions since joining the club last month.
“I think we let him [Messi] get a little comfortable when he came into the game,” Red Bulls captain Sean Nealis said. “He’s a great player and had a great little moment there.”
The hosts hardly distinguished themselves against the Messi-less Miami squad in the opening 45 minutes.
The game started to turn in the 34th minute when the crowd started chanting “We want Messi!”
The spectators didn’t get their wish, but Miami did get the lead.
First, the Red Bulls squandered a fabulous scoring opportunity when Omir Fernandez, standing six yards away from Callender, put Dru Yearwood’s cross from the left side wide right.
On the other end of the pitch in the 37th minute, Jordi Alba sent a right-flank free kick on net that goalkeeper Carlos Coronel punched away. The Red Bulls, however, could not clear it away. The ball eventually came to Diego Gomez off a Noah Allen feed and he drilled a 14-yard shot to the right of Coronel to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
It appeared the Red Bulls would have a chance to equalize in the 42nd minute when referee Allen Chapman ruled David Ruiz had committed a handball in the box and awarded a yellow card and penalty kick. The ball hit his upper arm.
After looking at Video Assistant Referee, Chapman ruled it wasn’t a penalty kick and rescinded the yellow card.
“The first half started a little slow, kind of weren’t ourselves didn’t capitalize on a pretty good opportunity,” midfielder Peter Stroud said.
The Red Bulls’ offense finally woke up in the second half, forcing Callender to handle the ball twice via shots in the opening 10 minutes.
He parried away Fernandez’ header off John Tolkin’s corner kick in the 50th minute, and then had a much easier time snatching Daniel Edelman’s shot from distance three minutes later.
Halftime substitute Tom Barlow, who replaced Elias Manoel, almost knotted it up in the 57th minute, but Callender made a nice kick save to keep the hosts off the scoreboard.
“We had a good spell there right in the beginning of the second half,” Nealis said. “We kind of had to have the better game. We just have to realize all momentum and take advantage of that point and it’s a frustrating result in our end.”
One of the biggest ovations of the night, however, didn’t come on a goal or scoring opportunity, but rather when Messi entered the match for Campana on the hour.
About a half hour later, the crowd got even louder, cheering Messi’s goal.
“It’s kind of surreal, obviously, like, just won a World Cup, six or seven months ago,” Stroud said. :He’s crazy. He’s playing in our league. I’s amazing to see him out at Red Bull Arena, obviously. It’s a surreal moment I think, obviously, to play against probably the best player ever to play the game.”