National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi tames Texas: Inter Miami survive another wild Leagues Cup night

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Yes: As it turns out, Lionel Andrés Messi can indeed do it on a viciously hot August evening in Frisco, Texas.

Some context for the non-terminally online: Old-school English television commentator Andy Gray birthed a meme during a Premier League broadcast more than a decade ago, when he declared that even the GOAT would struggle to produce his scintillating soccer on a cold, rainy night at Stoke City – a phrase which instantly became shorthand for the (admittedly somewhat dated) idea that England’s harsh conditions can humble even the world’s best.

With the Lone Star State’s infamously sweltering summer weather and a young, dynamic home team that loves to get out on the run, FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium makes for a decent MLS equivalent to that scenario. And with triple-digit temperatures at kickoff, even well after sundown, and an FCD side eager to derail the Messi hype train, Sunday’s Leagues Cup sold-out Round-of-16 clash between FCD and Inter Miami presented Messi & Co. with a truly testing situation for their first away match since his arrival.

What ensued was an instant classic.

Messi's toughest test to date

With incisive counterattacking and big, brave performances from several players, in particular Messi’s countryman Alan Velasco, FCD pushed the Herons to the limit, and looked like winners when they took a 4-2 lead with some 22 minutes left via a Robert Taylor own goal.

“We had it,” said a rueful Dallas head coach Nico Estévez postgame. “We have to feel very proud about our team and what we did. We could have scored seven goals today, against a team that did very well in the other games, and I think we put them in a really difficult position today. To be honest, I think we should win this game.”

But Messi is still Messi, the ultimate trump card. And yet again Miami rode his transcendent excellence to a late comeback, equalizing at 4-4 via his latest picture-perfect free-kick golazo in the 85th minute then winning the subsequent penalty-kick shootout, their fourth consecutive victory and a ticket to the Leagues Cup quarterfinals.

“It is true that we count on the best player in the world,” said IMCF head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, “and you can't ignore that.”

For the third straight game, Messi scored twice; that takes him up to seven goals in four games with Miami, good for the Leagues Cup Golden Boot lead. He also played a key role in the buildup to young homegrown Benjamin Cremaschi’s goal, and delivered the free kick that forced an own goal out of Marco Farfan. Even with his new team’s persistent defensive frailties, it seems they are never out of the running as long as their talisman is on hand. Their impeccable 5-for-5 display in the shootout suggested they felt unstoppable by that point.

“You can see our mentality, how things have changed in this club, how we're willing to fight to the last second, especially with the quality players that we have,” Cremaschi told MLS Season Pass’ Katie Witham postgame. “We know that we can be down by a bunch of goals and still come back in a matter of seconds. And that's it, just believing what we can do and believing that we can always get a win.”

Just when it seemed that some limitation had been placed on Messi's magic, that the brutal heat and fearless adversary would impose a reality check on this fairy-tale start to his new adventure in North America, Messi produced another of those unforgettable moments to wow the planet yet again, and extend Miami’s Leagues Cup run.

Could Dallas have managed the closing stages better? Was removing the livewire Velasco in the 77th minute a deadly mistake by Estévez? Or would any of it had mattered once Miami’s No. 10 decided that he simply couldn’t allow his side to lose this one?

The ultimate difference-maker

Afterwards Martino was asked, in effect: Are the Herons Messi-dependent? When he’s orchestrating his team and drilling crisp, clinical finishes into the corners of the net like he did again on this occasion, who in this sport wouldn’t readily embrace exactly that?

“These questions always happen where he is,” said the veteran Argentine manager, “Barcelona or the national team of Argentina, whatever. Fortunately we have him, and he was a very forceful player in this game.

“Many times there is a free kick in that sector and only with him, and it happens that you have the sensation that he is going to score,” Martino added of the equalizer. “A free kick is not something that is going to end up being a goal – 90% of the time, it is not a goal. But when he has it, it’s the opposite: 10% chance that it won't and 90% chance that it is. So we have to take advantage of that.”

We’re learning, too, that the so-called ‘Messi effect’ cuts both ways. Because his opponents are all eager to seize this chance to measure themselves against the GOAT, to show their own quality on the bigger, brighter stage that accompanies any match with Messi involved. That points to the virtuous circle of level-ups that he’s already prompted, lifting everyone’s ceiling.

“It's all very clear. As much as you play at a high level, the better you are,” said Estévez, who also faced off against Messi as a member of CF Valencia’s coaching staff a decade ago. “To have players like him here will make our players better, because when you have to face this kind of level, you have to do better, and you can see FC Dallas today, how some of our players raise their level higher than other games during the season.

“Like Alan Velasco, like Jesús [Ferreira], like Facu [Quignon], I think we had really good players that raised the level higher – Nkosi Tafari defended very well, and Marco Farfan, besides that unlucky header inside the own goal. I think everyone here tried to raise their best level, and I’ve always said, it is not about that these players are no good, it’s about playing more frequently against good, high-level players that make you get better.”

Next, the winner of Monday’s Houston Dynamo FC-Charlotte FC match will get their chance to match wits with the GOAT in a quarterfinal duel at DRV PNK Stadium on Friday, Aug. 11. It seems clear they’ll need their A-games, and then some, to stop Inter Miami.