HARRISON, N.J. – It was far from just another night at Red Bull Arena.
Despite the home side being in the thick of a heated Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race – one that could see their league-record postseason streak (13 years) end – the bulk of the attention went to Inter Miami CF and their three superstars: Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Only Alba started out of that big three, but that didn’t stop Miami from earning the 2-0 win on Saturday evening – nor did it prevent the sold-out crowd of 26,276 from making deafening noise throughout the Matchday 28 clash as “We Want Messi” chants battled drums and songs emanating the Red Bulls’ supporters’ sections.
But both coaches were proud of their team’s effort to block out the noise, literally. And for Miami, the ability to get three points without Messi and Busquets starting – a choice borne out of fixture congestion and minute loads – is a huge morale boost as they look to leap from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to at least ninth place, the position needed to earn them a playoff spot.
“We put a lot of value in this win because this [playing with a rotation] is something we need to get used to because Leo is going to join his national team,” said head coach Tata Martino. “He'll miss at least three games this year and next year it will be the same, and we need to understand that when he's not here the team still needs to provide results."
"Now or never"
Martino’s youthful Miami lineup was up to the task, matching the energy in the stadium with their play on the pitch. Five of the Herons’ starters were under 21, headlined by their trio of U22 Initiative signings – Diego Gómez, Tómas Avilés and Facundo Farías – that form something of a “little three” to complement the big three of Messi, Busquets and Alba.
All three young players performed well, and Gómez particularly proved his worth via a first-half goal (37’) that allowed Miami to dictate the tempo and the terms of the match from then on. DeAndre Yedlin, Miami’s captain before Messi joined the side, is impressed with how his new young teammates are adjusting to life on and off the pitch.
“They did great. I mean, I think people look at signings from overseas or different countries, and they automatically expect them to come in and be world-beaters. But, at the end of the day, it's even more than playing,” said Yedlin. “They have to adjust to life here. So that's difficult. And they've all done very well with it. They're getting the help that they need, and it's showing on the pitch. They're doing great. So proud of them.”
Kamal Miller, another veteran in the locker room, credits Martino’s unparalleled tactical preparations for allowing Miami to play well even without some of their superstars in the starting XI.
“We don't go into any game unprepared. We have very long meetings with Tata where he leaves no stone unturned,” said Miller. “[Martino] makes sure everyone knows exactly what they got to do in every situation and what he wants from you, and he just keeps the standards very high. So everyone's playing with a lot of confidence. Everyone is stepping up, and we know it's go time. Now or never.”
More Messi magic
Messi eventually subbed in at the 60-minute mark and, true to form, gave the record-setting New York crowd a magical goal as full-time neared. This time, it wasn’t the finish that dazzled so much as the first pass of his give-and-go combination with teammate Benjamin Cremaschi that set the stunning goal in motion – a line-splitting ball that left Miller almost as in awe as the crowd.
“I'm at the back. I just catch myself watching him instead of picking up on my assignment,” laughed Miller. “So it’s tough to stay focused. When you have such a great presence in front of you, and overall, it's amazing to see. Amazing.”
Even as Miami’s magical summer continues – they’ve already won Leagues Cup, are in the Open Cup final and are now nine games unbeaten (6W-0L-3D) since Messi debuted in mid-July – Martino is keeping his side grounded about what’s needed to climb out of their daunting hole and reach the playoffs.
Miami are now 14th in the Eastern Conference table, needing to make up 11 points with 11 games to go. They’ll return to action on Wednesday when hosting Nashville SC (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), again with almost no room for error given their pre-Messi hole.
"In regards to our chances [to make the playoffs], they are still very minimal, we cannot cover the reality we're in,” said Martino. “We are very far down in the standings. What we have to do is win the games we have in front of us. If we keep winning, the chances of making it will increase. Today we took the first step.”