National Writer: Charles Boehm

Messi declares Inter Miami’s bigger aim after beating LAFC: “Try and win the league”


Inter Miami’s 180-degree turnabout since the arrival of Lionel Messi and his old friend Sergio Busquets is undoubtedly remarkable.

With Sunday night’s pulsating, star-studded 3-1 road win over reigning MLS Cup champions LAFC, the Herons have gone from a nine-game winless skid and last place before their debuts to 11 matches and counting undefeated across Leagues Cup, US Open Cup and MLS play, fueled by Messi’s 11 goals and eight assists in those 11 games.

It’s hauled them out of the Eastern Conference basement and given them real hope of making up the massive gap that separated them from the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs places heading into the Leagues Cup break. Not only that, though: The Herons now truly believe they can go even further, and hoist the trophy currently in LAFC’s possession.

“The group is growing more. I’ve been saying it since the beginning of all of this, we were lucky to get in a tournament and get to a final,” Messi told MLS Season Pass in Spanish after assisting on tallies by Jordi Alba and Leo Campana in downtown Los Angeles.

“Now, we’re going to look to hit the objective of being among the best eight to try and win the league. This is the way. We continue growing and obviously winning provides a lot of confidence.”

Clinical vs. not

One thing Miami’s run can no longer be called at this point is surprising.

“The game shaped up exactly as we expected,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo after the setback at BMO Stadium, only his team’s fifth loss there in 31 home league matches under his leadership.

“We created a plethora of chances and just weren't effective tonight, and that was the difference in the game,” Cherundolo added. “I think all of our subjective opinions are enough to figure out what happened tonight. It was just being effective. It’s something that Miami did and we didn’t.”

With their summer signings on the pitch – and Sunday marked the first time all six of their high-profile July reinforcements started together – Miami almost always enjoy plenty of possession and create scoring chances with regularity. With that openness and their recurring frailties in defense, they also concede chances, typically a handful of inviting opportunities per game.

Opponents who can convert those chances have every chance to secure a positive result. So far, however, one adversary after another has failed to do so and paid the price. For LAFC, the uncharacteristically subpar finishing of leading scorer Dénis Bouanga, who also enraged Carlos Vela with a selfish decision to shoot rather than play in his teammate for a glorious early chance, was their undoing.

“Certainly they're not unbeatable,” said Cherundolo. “I think we saw that tonight and other nights as well. But I think it's very clear that they're extremely effective in the offensive end. What that means for opponents is that you have to be the same, because the few chances they do get, they obviously succeed in those. And if you're going to play them and beat them, you have to finish yours.”

New test

Beating Cherundolo’s Black & Gold side sticks out from IMCF’s previous 10 matches because of both the caliber of the vanquished and the circumstances at play. Miami were playing their third game in nine days and had to fly cross-country on short rest after their 0-0 midweek draw with Nashville SC. And still, they handled the defending champs with panache.

“We had spoken about it before the game, that it would be a good test for us to see where we really are and what we’re capable of,” said Messi. “It was a difficult place to play on against a very good rival, the current champions. We walk away with a very important result for what’s coming.”

Head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said much the same.

“We’ve had a lot of really tough games, but yes, we feel that given the quality of the rival, tonight has been the most complex, and where we’re competed the best through 90 minutes,” said the veteran Argentine boss. “In other games we’ve paused; at some moments we have been dominated. But in today’s game we competed well and I say that because I think Los Angeles is a very, very good team.”

This result hinged on a few key moments and fine margins, which can only increase the frustration of Miami’s victims.

Martino pointed to a “massive” one-on-one save by goalkeeper Drake Callender – whose form has earned him a US men’s national team call-up, though Sunday’s MLS Season Pass commentary crew revealed he won’t join the Yanks until after IMCF’s match vs. Sporting Kansas City next weekend – on Bouanga in the game’s early going, when LAFC were rampant.

“That gave us a lot of confidence and we were able to score on the first or second chance,” said the coach. “We were able to calm down a little.”

Team strength

While the Herons’ revival has multiple aspects and contributors, the sum of its parts grows steadily more fearsome, as Giorgio Chiellini made clear.

“It’s not just about the three guys from Barcelona. They built a really good team,” said LAFC’s accomplished Italian international. “This team is the best by far that I have faced in the MLS, to be honest. By far.

“They are in a situation in which it is not easy to reach the playoffs, but I bet on it. Not bet, really, but I think they will join the playoffs, and I don't want to be in the first in the East. Because you face Miami in the first round, and you arrive first or second, it’s not so good.”

Become a Messi Insider: Sign up to receive insider news, early access to Messi promotions and more.

By checking this box, I hereby consent to receive additional information from Major League Soccer, its Clubs, Soccer United Marketing and each of their respective affiliates and marketing partners and I agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.

The Messi Insider: Get the best Messi coverage straight to your inbox.

By checking this box, I hereby consent to receive additional information from Major League Soccer, its Clubs, Soccer United Marketing and each of their respective affiliates and marketing partners and I agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.