It was always going to end this way, wasn’t it?
The Leagues Cup was always going to end with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami, who just a few months ago were little more than a last-place team with delusions of grandeur, lifting their first trophy in front of a worldwide audience. It was always going to end with Messi scoring in every match he’s played since landing in Florida. And it was always going to end this way for Nashville SC, Miami’s opponents in Saturday’s Leagues Cup final, the hometown team in a city well-known for broken dreams and heartbreak.
The story on Saturday was always going to involve a moment of brilliance from Messi, too. Amidst what’s quickly become a laundry list of great moments in America, Messi’s goal on Saturday night against Nashville — a curling, inch-perfect effort from outside the box that ended up being Miami’s only goal of the evening before winning the first trophy in club history through a penalty shootout — is probably at the top of the heap. You could not have written a better script, frankly.
Out of this WORLD. 💫
Take a bow, Leo Messi. pic.twitter.com/qm90VJtVbc
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 20, 2023
“It’s like a movie,” Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said after the game. “People keep saying that. Every time Leo scores one of these goals, every time (Inter Miami midfielder Sergio Busquets) makes one of these passes, every time Jordi (Alba) makes one of these runs people say, ‘Is it a fix?’ It’s the biggest compliment anybody can give one of these players. It is like a movie. You watch these players playing and it’s emotional watching them. Everything about their play is beautiful. Everything about their mannerism is beautiful. Everything about them as individuals off the pitch is beautiful. So when they play, it’s emotional.”
Messi’s goal came in the 23rd minute and came against the run of play. And while much of the initial discussion in regards to the strike has centered around Messi’s ball control, or the shot itself, the entire sequence started with a bit of lovely combination play from Inter Miami striker Josef Martinez and midfielder Robert Taylor, who have both become Messi’s preferred partners in attack. Taylor redirected a low, bouncing pass played to him just over the center stripe with a cheeky backheel to Martinez, who stepped forward to meet the ball and drove it over his shoulder and back to Taylor, who by then was streaking down the far sideline.
Drifting into view at that point was Messi, who called for the ball on the near side of the field. Taylor instead chose to find 18-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi in the center of the area. His pass was deflected, rolling back out of the penalty area and directly into the path of Messi.
Crowds at Miami’s road games have been an interesting mix of devoted supporters, casual fans and curiosity-seekers. Massively-inflated ticket prices that have followed Miami all over the country since Messi announced his decision to join Inter Miami have priced out many die-hards; season ticket holders sometimes can’t resist the temptation to finance their entire ticket package, more or less, by reselling one ticket to one game. It creates an atmosphere where many in attendance are mostly there for Messi and Messi alone. The mix in Nashville was much the same. Messi was roundly booed for stretches on Saturday, but equally adored.
So when the ball came to him, every fan in attendance — whether they came to gawk at Messi, heckle him or worship him — came to attention. The seven opponents around the Argentine did, as well. Walker Zimmerman, one of MLS’ top defenders, stepped to him, carefully timing a challenge and making contact with the ball, no small feat given the opponent.
I don’t know what else Zimmerman can do off a carom, he has his whole foot around the ball within an inch of it and Messi just… steps around him. These little micro-touches he takes, they make no geometric sense. pic.twitter.com/rCM8kgbf9N
— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) August 20, 2023
“I knew he was going to cut on the left and I got a good touch in,” Zimmerman told The Athletic after the match. “Unfortunately, it ricocheted right back into his path, and he put it in the top corner. That’s made him the player he is, his ability to find corners from in and around the top of the box.”
Zimmerman’s touch was admirable but Messi, at that point, had magnetized to the ball. He dragged it to his left and faced a trio of other defenders. Dax McCarty, a 17-year MLS veteran, had crossed over behind Zimmerman to offer cover. Now, he turned and faced Messi, hopping along with his leg out in an attempt to block his shot. Alex Muyl and Shaq Moore assembled alongside McCarty at the edge of the 18 yard box, narrowing Messi’s options greatly.
As Messi carried the ball wider, and more and more Nashville players crowded his view, his window grew smaller and smaller. But even in the few seconds he had the ball, even as the statistical probability that he’d find the back of the net drifted toward zero, and even as Martinez came back into view — at this point wide open and breaking toward the near post — what happened next felt inevitable. With a stroke of his left foot, Messi threaded the needle between four Nashville players and past the outstretched hands of Nashville goalkeeper Elliot Panicco.
Se nos acaban los adjetivos. 🥵 pic.twitter.com/FlIMeTDlGy
— MLS Español (@MLSes) August 20, 2023
“You try to keep him off of his left foot as much as you can,” said McCarty. “I knew he was about to shoot it, so I tried to get my leg up. You don’t know exactly how high or how low to go, and that’s why he’s the greatest of all time. It doesn’t matter where you put yourself. He puts the ball where no other player on the planet is able to put it.”
“This is the first time that I’ve seen (Messi) play live,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said after the match. “And I think what I would take away from it is that there are moments in the game where he’s just unplayable. It’s not over a prolonged period. It’s not for 90 minutes. There are windows where he just comes to life and it’s almost impossible to deal with what he’s wanting to do.”
The inevitability of Messi’s goal wasn’t just felt by McCarty, or by Smith, or by any other number of teammates, opponents or fans. It was felt by Messi, as well, who started celebrating his goal before it even hit the back of the net. The second the ball left his foot, the Argentine started streaking away from the area and toward the ad boards, sailing into the air and pumping his fists. Within seconds, he was mobbed by his teammates.
Nashville is the latest MLS team to have convinced itself that they’d be the ones to derail Miami’s Messi-driven run of form. First there was Atlanta United, whose recent defensive weaknesses guided them to the shredder. Then there was FC Dallas, playing at home in front of a capacity crowd and in that city’s notorious summer heat. They were a stronger test but they, too, eventually folded in a penalty shootout. Orlando did their best to get into a street fight with Miami, which only emboldened Messi and his crew. Philly, maybe the league’s most consistent team over the past several years, made their own attempt and failed completely.
And then there was Nashville, one of MLS’ more recent success stories, with veteran leadership and a proven difference-maker in 2022 MLS MVP Hany Mukthar, playing in front of over 30,000 rabid fans in MLS’ largest soccer-specific venue.
For a moment, it did feel like they’d get the job done. Put simply, they were the better team for long stretches of the game on Saturday but struggled to convert their chances. The club’s only goal, a point-blank effort from Fafa Picault, needed a fortunate bounce off of Miami keeper Drake Callender to find the back of the net. Other efforts were stymied by Callendar who, aside from Messi, may have proven to be Miami’s most valuable player during this Leagues Cup run, or missed the mark entirely.
“To be perfectly honest, if it wasn’t for the man of the moment in their group, we would have won tonight,” Smith told Season Pass reporter Katie Witham. “The goal that he scored is just incredible, out of nothing.”
The game ended with one of the most dramatic penalty shootouts in league history, an 11-round affair where both teams were nearly perfect, ending with Callendar scoring and then saving the last two shots of the night by himself. By the time the goalkeepers started hitting penalties, the tension in the stadium was unbearable. The whole thing, as Beckham said, felt very much like a movie script. And we all knew how this movie would end.
(Top photo: Pablo Maurer)