National Writer: Charles Boehm

Inter Miami's "new era": Lionel Messi brings historic Leagues Cup title


Inter Miami CF got their storybook ending at GEODIS Park on Saturday night, edging Nashville SC in an 11-round penalty-kick shootout to win Leagues Cup after 90-plus minutes of wild, achingly dramatic soccer that epitomized the jittery euphoria of a tight cup final.

“Storybook” might not be the right word here, though. Because really, there’s no script or outline for what Lionel Messi and his fellow Herons are doing in real-time before our eyes – building a superclub in flight, as it were.

“It's pretty surreal, very emotional,” said goalkeeper Drake Callender, who earned man of the match honors for a game-defining performance in which he made five saves during open play, then denied his opposite number Elliot Panicco in the 11th round to .

“This team works so hard day in and day out to be able to perform like this, on a night like this, and to have it come down to the very end, it's amazing to see the grit, just the belief of what we're capable of is something special. I’m just blessed to be a part of it.”

IMCF reached this milestone on a night when Nashville got so much right. Roared on by a spirited crowd of 30,109, the Coyotes defended with organization and poise, even after Messi fired an exquisite opener into the top corner despite the presence of six gold jerseys between him and the goal. The favored Herons were held to just 1.04 expected goals, three-quarters of which came via Leo Campana's stunning, sliding shot off the post on the final kick of the game.

Having up to this point scored multiple goals in every one of their post-Messi matches, Miami were largely stifled by NSC. Yet at the end of the day, the reality remains that one side has the greatest player on earth, and the other does not.

“Of course, I'm delighted with the way that we denied him in particular space,” Nashville boss Gary Smith ruefully said of Messi. “But I think this is the first time that I've seen him play live, and I think what I would take away from it is this: 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. And obviously that's the caliber of the individual.”

Messi, Miami make history

Billions of people around the world are quite familiar with the sight of Messi hoisting hardware. This latest achievement runs the reigning World Cup champion’s career total to 44 titles, officially passing his former FC Barcelona teammate Dani Alves as the most decorated player in world soccer history.

What’s so striking is who the GOAT is achieving it with now. A club in just its fourth season of existence, with its permanent home stadium still under construction, marked by underachievement on the field for all too much of that brief history, and still sitting in last place in the MLS standings thanks to a lengthy winless skid leading up to the arrival of Messi and his old friend Sergio Busquets, now has its first-ever trophy, not to mention millions in prize money and a slot in the Round of 16 of next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup.

If Miami can achieve this after just a few weeks’ worth of input from Messi, Busquets and the four other showcase summer signings still finding their feet in South Florida, what will they be able to achieve over the longer haul?

“I remember the first days [in charge]; we needed to do more trainings to give shape to the team and I was thinking, how convenient it is to move on in this tournament, because we can take advantage of this month to play more,” said head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who took up his post in late June.

“But after this month, we are champions, so it feels great, and it helps us continue growing, keep dreaming. I think we clearly understand now what we can do looking forward after starting work at this club 30, 35 days ago.”

With 10 goals and four assists in his first seven IMCF appearances, Messi is incredibly already third on the club’s all-time scoring list. And as he settles into a more normal rhythm than his supremely hectic start to life in North America, he might just be able to extend that steep upward trajectory.

“These individual achievements, as he says, he puts that aside and he values much more the collective achievements,” noted Martino. “But being the player with the most titles won in history … this record is in very good hands.”

At that point in Martino’s press conference, his players and staff burst into the room, spraying champagne and chanting exultantly as they dragged their coach away from the media and into their celebrations. The club that earlier this year trudged on for many weeks without a victory is suddenly serially successful, addicted to winning.

More to come?

They can take another big step towards further honors in their very next match, when they visit MLS-leading FC Cincinnati for a US Open Cup semifinal at TQL Stadium at midweek.

“There's not a long time to celebrate. On Wednesday we have another game and we will continue playing and competing like this in the different tournaments,” declared Martino. “This one is in the past. And now we are dreaming about the match against Cincinnati next Wednesday.

“Now we better understand the future, and it's more clear.”

Just seven games – none of them defeats – into Messi’s Miami tenure, it seems a new MLS juggernaut has already been born.

“Of course, this is what we really want. This should be the start of a new era,” said Martino, paying tribute to successfully executed MLS projects like Nashville’s by declaring them a role model of sorts for his.

“Nashville has been showing that performance year after year,” he later added. “They have qualified to all playoffs since they started playing in MLS. It's a very strong team with two or three important individual players, but very strong as a team. We’re trying to make some changes and we are in this tournament that we enjoyed and we value a lot. I hope that we will be able to build something as Nashville did, or Atlanta did in the first years, something solid so that people can dream.”

For both fans and ownership of this young, but supremely ambitious club that sport the phrase “Freedom to Dream” on the back collar of its jerseys, that’s a sweet tune in the Music City.

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