National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi transforming Inter Miami: "He's allowing other players to flourish"


“Yeah, I mean, he is the best player in the world. So this is what he does.”

On one hand, Robert Taylor was perhaps merely stating the obvious after Inter Miami CF’s 4-0 thumping of Atlanta United on Tuesday night.

MLS Season Pass sideline reporter Katie Witham had just asked him about the Herons’ rapid, dramatic transformation from MLS bottom dwellers to Leagues Cup group winners mere days after Lionel Messi’s arrival, with Taylor himself having eclipsed his current 2022-23 league goal total (two) with three goals and an assist in the Argentine legend’s first two matches in RosaNegra, both wins.

“Everyone sees what he does. He can keep the ball – he can do everything on the ball – he can keep it in tight spaces, he makes the right decisions 100% of the time,” said Taylor. “Every time he has the ball, I’ll just try and get in behind, make a run for him, and most of the time he'll find one of our teammates, for sure, making the run. So I think he brings so much quality into the team, so much.”

Ripple effect

Then again, thousands of words can and probably will be written in detail about the scope of Messi’s immediate impact on his new team – technically, tactically, psychologically and beyond. The GOAT has shown absolutely no difficulties whatsoever with his adaptation to a new city, new club and new professional environment, not only producing in his own right (3g/1a) but elevating the performance levels of everyone around him.

“He’s just so creative. I think he's allowing other players to flourish,” said Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender, who saved Thiago Almada’s late penalty kick to preserve his side’s clean sheet, their first since a 1-0 US Open Cup quarterfinal win over USL Championship club Birmingham Legion on June 7, the day Messi announced his intention to join IMCF.

“I mean, we’ve seen Robert Taylor come and score more goals. We're seeing a lot more creativity going forward. So as good as he is, he's making the players around him even better.”

Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino spoke of how “contagious” Messi’s excellence and commitment have been for everyone around the club, how inspiring his presence can be. And his longtime FC Barcelona comrade Sergio Busquets has engineered a comparable impact at the heart of Miami’s midfield in his own right.

“I think his decision-making, being able to receive and play forward,” said Callender of Busquets. “But also his ability to just sit in that central zone and make the right pass and also provide help defensively.”

Making their first starts in Miami, Messi and Busquets were imperious at DRV PNK Stadium, completing 82% and 93% of their passes, respectively, while creating three scoring chances between them and dominating the tempo and rhythm of the match. As MLS Season Pass commentator Maurice Edu noted during the postgame show, “confidence is infectious,” none more than Messi’s.

“The first impact that the footballers have, the arrival of Leo and the arrival of Busi, I think it has given [teammates] a lot of confidence,” said Martino postgame. “They feel more supported, they feel that the responsibility is carried by the great players. And then they feel more liberated to play.

“The team passes the ball well, circulates the ball well. There's times when the coach prepares a certain game in a certain way. But these two players are so good at what they do that they create space.”

Playing free

Martino pointed to his side’s growing understanding of his concepts as their time together on the training ground stacks up day by day. And he again alluded to the freedom Messi has gained from his long-sought championship breakthrough with the Argentine national team at the World Cup in December, releasing him from the burden of the emotional “backpack” he carried for so long as his country’s great hope for a return to glory.

“The great change that Leo has had, having taken off a great weight that he had on his shoulders,” said Martino, “he has done it with the Argentine national team in the last two years and that shows in everything: in his day-to-day life, in his statements, in his way of facing each of the games. He is a very free player, and undoubtedly for a player of such caliber, being free involves starting to see much more of these types of performances.”

Amid his usual lightning-quick dribbling slaloms and his unparalleled passing vision, Messi has radiated positive energy in his brief time at IMCF. That combination has suddenly made the Herons a vastly more menacing proposition for their adversaries in Leagues Cup, MLS and the US Open Cup, where they will play a semifinal vs. FC Cincinnati next month (Aug. 23).

With 12 league games to go, could they really make up the 12-point gap currently separating them from the Eastern Conference’s final Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth? Statistically it remains a long shot, yet Messi’s sheer effervescence pushes it closer and closer to the realm of possibility.

“As we said, we're going to try,” said Martino, whose side has won Leagues Cup’s South 3 group and will face the winner of the South 2 group (Houston, Orlando, Santos Laguna) in the Round of 32 when the knockout phase begins in early August. “As long as we have hope, obviously we'll elevate the other two tournaments and this one. We've already passed this first phase, we'll see who's the opponent we'll face in the next round.

“The most difficult thing is to qualify for the playoffs because we are going almost against the clock. But surely we are going to try.”