National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi's "aura" grows: Inter Miami near Leagues Cup glory


CHESTER, Pa. – Scoring the Philadelphia Union’s consolation goal in their 4-1 Leagues Cup semifinal loss to Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF was cold comfort for Alejandro Bedoya on a painfully disappointing Tuesday evening at Subaru Park for him and his teammates.

He suspected his 8-year-old son Santino would be pleased about it when he woke up in the morning, though.

“He'll probably be like, I can't believe you scored against Messi,” Bedoya told reporters with a brief, wry smile in the postgame mixed zone. “Even though he was telling me that Messi’s gonna score. Messi’s his favorite player. You know, he's at that age … kids say the darnedest things.”

Fielding such trash talk from within their own households is just one small example of the multilayered difficulties the Union faced against Messi and Miami. Though the Argentine scored yet again, this time a seeing-eye frozen rope into the side netting from some 36 yards out, his longest-range goal since 2012, the Herons didn’t even require an overwhelming performance from the GOAT to cruise past the reigning Eastern Conference champions and into the Leagues Cup Final, where they’ll visit Nashville SC at GEODIS Park on Saturday (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“It's not easy to say now. I think we've been scared a little bit of the names that Miami had,” said Philly playmaker Dániel Gazdag. “Obviously they have a good team now. But they are not better than us [by] three goals.”

More than Messi

Even after taking the stunning gut punch of a 3rd-minute tally by Josef Martínez, the first blow in a nightmare first half for the hosts, Philly asked real questions of the Herons. Drake Callender had to make a superb save to deny Gazdag in a one-on-one just minutes after Martínez’s strike – “I should have scored that; would have been a different game,” said Gazdag later – and the Union finished the night with a markedly superior expected-goals tally to Miami’s.

It didn’t matter. With additional goals from Jordi Alba and young homegrown David Ruíz, as well as steady performances across the XI, this was a night that displayed how much more there is to IMCF than just Messi – how dramatically he and his friends Alba and Sergio Busquets have elevated their new team, how quickly coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has implemented a cohesive collective.

“Leo, Josef, normally they participate in the goals\],” said Martino postgame. “There’s progress, because [Benja \[Cremaschi\] recently scored; today it was David coming from behind for the goal, Jordi as a defender scores a goal. And that I think is important for any team.

“It’s true that the team is changed, but it’s also true that the roster has changed. Today we have a much more competitive roster that creates problems for the coach when it comes time to choose the team.”

Having perhaps the greatest player of all time in your colors provides an incalculable psychological boost, and the presence of two of his most elite colleagues from the FC Barcelona salad days has ratcheted up the levels that much further.

“It's changed a lot,” said Ruiz. “Everybody has a winning mentality, and everybody's ready to play every tournament, win every game, and every final.

“They’re players that obviously just try and give advice,” he explained of the ex-Barça trio’s influence. “We're like, young and stuff, we try to run everywhere. That's something that they just told us, oh, just maintain more your position, that the ball’s going to get to you. Stop running for the ball too much where you’re just trapping yourself – things like that.”

The Herons still sit last in the MLS standings, a stiff recovery mission awaiting in the coming weeks to book postseason soccer. But Leagues Cup turned out to be an ideal blank slate, the first step in the club’s drastic midseason reinvention.

“We saw the opportunity in Leagues Cup to kind of have like a fresh start. It's not in league play, but it's an opportunity to play well, win games, perform well and lift a trophy,” said Callender. “That, alongside those players joining our team, was a perfect mixture for us to do well.

“They’re just top professionals, everything that they do is driven towards performance and winning games. They’re also good people. Yeah, they're new players, but I feel like they blended in with the culture really well. So I think their confidence and just how they play, their conviction and the decisions they make both on and off the field, it's helped the guys realize like, dang, this is a big opportunity.”

"They just exude confidence" 

Meanwhile, did the Union – one of MLS’s elite teams for the past four years – just pick a bad night to have a bad night? Or is there a mental block creeping into the heads of Miami’s opponents as their winning streak lengthens? They, like IMCF’s other recent victims, will ponder that.

“Gave up goals that we shouldn't have. Got punished for it, got humbled,” said Union coach Jim Curtin. “That's a very good Miami team, no question about it, they have a ton of talent. But we're just overall disappointed we didn't have our best first half in particular, and once you go down 3-0 against a quality opponent it's going to be difficult.”

As Miami’s positive results stack up, their collective confidence snowballs, their repute grows among adversaries, creating a cumulative momentum that could quite conceivably sustain their incredible reversal of fortunes.

“The whole complexion of the team has changed incredibly,” said Bedoya of the Herons. “Just even talking to the young guys, Cremaschi is a great talent, he played at the same youth club that I played too, Weston [FC], so I was just talking with him and he even acknowledges how much everything's changed – the aura.

“When you have guys of that caliber, they just exude confidence. And you can see everybody's confidence just go up. Look at \[Robert\] Taylor, look at all these other guys, just, I mean, some crazy form.”

Said Gazdag: “[Miami] will be dangerous for everyone. They just changed a lot since new players came in and they got a new coach as well. You can see the way they defend, the defensive way they play now, it's just much better than before. It's not easy to break them up. So I think they have a good team and they can go far if they get in the playoffs.”

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