National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi, Inter Miami held scoreless by Nashville SC's "resounding" defense


Inter Miami CF paraded the Leagues Cup 2023 trophy in front of their home faithful before Wednesday’s match vs. Nashville SC at DRV PNK Stadium, giving NSC a painful reminder of the hardware the Herons dramatically denied them at GEODIS Park in that tournament’s final on Aug. 19.

The Coyotes found revenge in the best manner available to them: With a defensive masterclass that denied Miami the three home points they so badly needed in their desperate late push for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Messi held under wraps

Despite enjoying 69% of possession and completing upwards of 700 passes at a 92% accuracy rate on the night, Lionel Messi & Co. were stymied again and again when they reached NSC’s penalty box, held scoreless for the first time in the 10 matches since Messi and Sergio Busquets made their debuts last month. The 0-0 final scoreline deprived Gianni Infantino, Gloria Estefan, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the other VIPs in attendance of the fireworks that had become common at DRV PNK this summer.

“I'm sure that there are not going to be too many teams going to this place and be able to limit this Miami group to as little as we have tonight,” NSC head coach Gary Smith said afterwards. “It was a resounding display without the ball. Guys fulfilled their roles to an absolute optimum and more. It was obvious when I walked into the locker room how much some of those guys put into this game.”

While not a fatal blow, this was a potentially costly setback for an IMCF side that must essentially pick up points at a Supporters’ Shield-winning pace for the next two months if they are to taste the postseason. Even if it won’t make up for the aforementioned trophy, disrupting that offers a measure of revenge for NSC, who sit well above the Eastern Conference playoff line themselves.

“Nashville is a team that defends well, and today I think they were a little deeper than in the final,” said Miami boss Gerardo “Tata” Martino in Spanish, lamenting his team’s lack of “freshness” as their congested schedule stacks up. “[Our] team had more rhythm in the second half than in the first half; paradoxically the best situations were [Robert] Taylor's two chances in the first half.

“In the first half, the ball was moving too slowly; in the second I think we did a little better, but it was hard for us. These games usually happen, I understand everyone’s frustration. We too felt it was a good night to continue gaining ground.”

No Miami party

To some extent, circumstances imposed a cautious outlook from the visitors. With Walker Zimmerman dealing with a “lower body” injury and an intense workload, Hany Mukhtar in need of rest and thus rotated to the substitutes’ bench, and Sam Surridge left at home to nurse a knee problem, Nashville were short on DP game-changers. That prompted an unfussy 4-4-2 shape and a corresponding counterattacking mentality.

“When you put many players close to your own goal, normally you're going to have a good chance of keeping a clean sheet,” said Martino. “What changed today is that Surridge and Mukhtar, they're very offensive players that they had in the first game [the Leagues Cup Final] that weren’t here or didn't start today. So defensively, they had more today, with 10 players that were more defensively sound, and we weren't able to have a lot of attacking threats.”

Nashville’s 4-0 thumping at the hands of Atlanta United over the weekend – the worst margin of defeat in club history – actually worked against Miami here, as it prompted Smith and his staff to make meticulous defending a point of emphasis for a group who pride themselves on organization and steel.

“Coming off the result in Atlanta, we needed to tighten things up defensively,” veteran holding midfielder Dax McCarty told MLS Season Pass reporter Katie Witham. “Coming into Miami, playing against this team right now, in the form they’re in, that's not exactly an easy task. So full credit to the whole team. I thought we defended a little bit too deep in the first half. We wanted to get our lines up a little bit in the second half and put a little bit more pressure on them, which I thought we did.”

Defense first

This was a very different sort of match than the pulsating final earlier in the month.

Nashville were dogged and physical, slowing down the tempo as Miami’s frustration grew palpably. That spirit of resistance was exemplified by young center back Jack Maher, who filled Zimmerman’s usual spot with distinction and even drew a shove and an angry expletive from Messi when he put his hands on the superstar in the first half.

“Gary talked about staying very compact and not getting frustrated, because they were going to have the ball a lot of the time; staying disciplined and staying focused,” said McCarty’s engine-room partner Brian Anunga. “Messi likes to drift in those pockets and find those balls, especially behind. So we tried to limit those chances throughout the game. The tactic was to stay compact, stay disciplined and stay focused throughout 90 minutes, which is not easy to do.”

For all Miami’s time on the ball, the Coyotes limited them to just 0.7 expected goals and even had reason to rue not snatching a victory for themselves, with Mukhtar and Jacob Shaffelburg repeatedly menacing on the counter when they entered in the second half.

“We expected, obviously, to concede possession. Lionel Messi himself of course can carve an opportunity out of pretty much nothing,” said Smith. “I thought tonight the guys did a wonderful job, especially in and around the penalty area, of getting a block on or blocking his passing lanes and genuinely giving it everything they could to try and really blunt that very bright and purposeful attack that Miami have.”

So the already-tight window of playoff qualification closes a bit further for IMCF. The Herons must now jet across the continent to play at LAFC on Sunday (10 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), the first of a whopping seven matches in September, with Messi, goalkeeper Drake Callender and a host of other regulars set to miss games while on international duty.

“What we have to do is move on,” said Tata. “Anything can happen.”