National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi raises “expectations”: Inter Miami now Leagues Cup favorite?


There’s a different sort of gravity around so-called ‘big clubs,’ where every moment, every move, every word is amplified and scrutinized intensely. Gerardo “Tata” Martino knows plenty about such environments, having worked in several of them over his distinguished career, and now finds himself in another at Inter Miami CF.

All the signs were present on Friday night as the Herons cruised to a dominant 4-0 Leagues Cup quarterfinal win over Charlotte FC at DRV PNK Stadium, with Lionel Messi scoring again, as he has in every game since his arrival in South Florida, for a total of eight goals and three assists in five matches to date.

Speaking to a packed room of reporters in the postgame press conference, Martino was grilled about a surreal range of topics, from Miami’s order of penalty-kick takers (to the surprise of many, Josef Martínez, not Messi, took, and converted, IMCF’s first-half spot-kick) to the ongoing wildfires in Hawai’i to his team’s drastic glow-up from MLS bottom dwellers to Leagues Cup favorites.

Isn’t it true, Martino was asked by one cheeky journalist in Spanish, that if you don't finish the tournament in first place, the fault will be yours, that it will be seen as a failure?

“It's a question that you love to use a lot; it generates some drama,” responded Tata with a knowing smile. “We will take responsibility for what we take responsibility for. There are no coaches in any team that don't have to assume that risk.

“You can ask, you can question, you can debate,” he added, “but at the start of this tournament, there were 47 teams, and Miami, which is in the last place in [MLS], is in the semifinals. I think that speaks to a moment that, as a minimum, we have to have some expectations of being able to do something important.”

Messi has built his legend on making the incredible seem normal, and he’s doing it again with a team that was being mocked and scorned – and defeated – with steady regularity just a few weeks ago. After going more than a month without a victory before his and his old friend Sergio Busquets’ July arrival, the Herons are 5W-0L-0D since the GOAT's debut, with 17 goals scored and six conceded.

It’s not just Messi’s productivity or his stardom: He’s Miami’s fulcrum in nearly all phases of the game, and beyond.

“The truth is that beyond the collective effort of the team, we're also here because of what he has offered in these last five games,” said Martino. “And not only what he gives, but what he generates for [his teammates]. There's a great confidence in the rest of the players playing with him.

“It is hard to understand how a player that touches the ball 40 or 50 meters from the opponent’s goal generates an expectation of a goal when there's a whole team between him and the goal,” he continued. “This helps with a team giving him passes; they allow him to choose the next play. When we find Leo to be able to make the decision of where the play is going to go, is a very good sensation. And then after, what he's doing outside of the pitch … he’s started being a leader with the group, in training, on the field, and I’m not just speaking about sports leadership. There's a lot of changes because of his presence.”

The rate of Messi-era progress at IMCF has been so swift as to allow Martino and his staff to move down their checklist faster than most would’ve thought possible upon his hiring at the end of June. Miami’s team shape and control of the tempo have improved in every match, and their pleasure with posting their second shutout of the current winning streak was obvious.

“We just focused on keeping a clean sheet,” sudden star Robert Taylor told MLS Season Pass sideline reporter Katie Witham after scoring his fourth goal of the Messi era. “I knew we'd score goals, I knew we'd create chances to score, so it was important to keep a clean sheet.”

IMCF bested their visitors from North Carolina in most every statistical category, more than tripling Charlotte in expected goals. And with another early goal – Martinez’s PK – and a 2-0 halftime lead, the night’s only real suspense in Fort Lauderdale was whether Messi would add his name to the scoresheet. He duly did in the dying minutes via a simple finish of Leo Campana’s square pass after another error in Charlotte’s defense.

“This Miami team is completely transformed,” said Charlotte head coach Christian Lattanzio. “And when you are in the semifinals, I don't think that there is a big favorite, but when you have Messi, Busquets and \[Jordi\] Alba in the team, surely you can’t hide from wanting to win every competition in which you take part.”

Similarly, CLTFC’s Italian boss agreed the prospect of a late run from last place into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, a Lazarus-like turnaround that once looked statistically remote grows more plausible with every Messi masterclass.

Not only that, he added, if the Argentine icon touches down in the postseason, who’s to say they won’t instantly become MLS Cup favorites, too?

“If they find a way of getting into the playoffs, I think they also have a chance in there,” said Lattanzio. “I've seen it in the past in this league. I remember one year with Seattle [in 2016], they arrived very late in the playoffs, then they had a very good team at the time and they went all the way. So it’s still possible for every team to win it, and this is the beauty and the magic of the playoffs, I guess.”

Miami's Leagues Cup run continues with a semifinal visit to reigning Eastern Conference champions Philadelphia Union on Tuesday evening at Subaru Park (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

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