National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi raises temperature on Orlando in "hot" Florida Derby win


Lionel Messi had dropped his shoulder to land a sly shot that sent César Araújo flying to the turf just moments beforehand, but he wasn’t done with him. Not by a long shot.

After the two players clashed repeatedly in the dying moments of the first half, Inter Miami CF’s megastar held an extended and seemingly antagonistic chat with the young Orlando City SC midfielder, covering his mouth with his hand to foil any would-be lipreaders as the two teams walked off the DRV PNK Stadium pitch at halftime of Wednesday night’s Leagues Cup Round-of-32 match that ended in a 3-1 win for Miami.

Then, even after Araújo’s teammates made a point to slow his walk down the hallway towards the locker rooms, Messi lingered, slowing his pace to resume chirping at the Uruguayan face-to-face and reacting angrily when Felipe Martins, the Lions’ veteran professor of the dark arts, intervened to give Araújo some space.

“It was a clasico,” said Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino in Spanish afterwards. “The game was hot at some points.”

Messi fired up

That’s underselling it quite a bit. Florida’s MLS derby can get pretty petty; just listen to the constant trash talk between their fans online, or the purple paint used to deface a Messi mural created by Miami supporters group Vice City 1896 a few days ago. And while he only arrived a couple of weeks ago, Messi – as he has with so many other aspects of his new life stateside – caught those vibes extraordinarily quickly.

In a match delayed more than an hour by another wave of South Florida’s recurring summer squalls, the GOAT embraced the Sturm und Drang of the moment, wading without hesitation into the nastiness of the in-state rivalry. This latest edition featured 27 fouls, seven yellow cards and one very contentious penalty-kick decision as Salvadoran referee Iván Barton labored to keep the game from running off the rails.

OCSC provided much more rugged resistance to Messi & Co. than Atlanta United did last week, epitomized by Araújo, who showed bravery beyond his 22 years to joust repeatedly with Messi and fire home an equalizing goal after the Argentine maestro opened the scoring in just the seventh minute for the hosts.

And Messi responded in kind, lobbying Barton for further discipline against Orlando and radiating disdain for the Lions, much like he did after Argentina’s epic quarterfinal win over the Netherlands at the World Cup last fall, where his “¿Qué miras, bobo?” taunt of Wout Weghorst went viral.

“He said that he came to compete, that he came to win things, and he shows that today,” said Martino, “because it was a clasico; the game was hot at some points, and somehow he is fulfilling what he said.”

Experience pays off

The Lions, in turn, were infuriated by what they perceived as special treatment for Messi.

“The attention that we’re getting in here, with all that is happening, it becomes a circus. Today was a circus,” said an obviously frustrated Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja, taking issue with what he called “clear simulation” by perennial Orlando torturer Josef Martínez to earn the game-changing penalty early in the second half. (Before joining Miami, Martínez regularly scored on the Lions as a member of another southern rival, Atlanta United.)

“The PK [decision] is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable," continued Pareja. "I don't know if the VAR [video assistant referee] came today. So if the VAR came today and we have referees there, then we have to be honest and go and see it, because the game deserves it.”

Ironically, just the day before, Martino had batted away comparisons of Orlando-Miami to the bitter FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid matchup his trio of former Barça stars know so well from their time together in LaLiga, responding that “we're years away from El Clasico.”

He’s right, of course. Spain’s biggest fixture is more than a century old, dripping with rich history and strident political and cultural overtones. But the anger and angst were visceral on Wednesday night, and Miami’s stars did not waver in that crucible.

“This is an additional motivation. Yes, I expect much more of this in these matches. No doubt this is going to be the case,” said Martino. “But I know how they compete. They have been competing at the highest level for 20 years. So there is no reason to believe that even when the match is harsh and difficult and physical, they won't be able to play.”

A true leader

Messi treated the spirited home crowd and many millions watching around the world to more of the beautiful soccer he’s conjured up in his first three IMCF matches, slicing through the Lions’ defense repeatedly and eventually bagging two goals in the 3-1 win that advances Miami to a Round-of-16 clash with FC Dallas.

He also earned his first yellow card in RosaNegra, and gave an earful to Araújo, Felipe and anyone else in purple who crossed him, underlining the fact that he plans to keep winning on these shores, and not just ride off into the sunset.

Above all, that goal hinges on elevating and inspiring his teammates, many of whom resemble supercharged versions of their pre-Messi selves – none more so than Robert Taylor, who delivered a delightful assist on the opener.

“I mean, I've watched him play all my life, right?” Taylor told the MLS Season Pass broadcast team after the match. “We all know what he wants to do on the ball and what kind of runs he makes. So it's easy to adapt for everyone to his game.”

Or as defender DeAndre Yedlin put it: “He [Messi] just gives everybody confidence around him. You know you can give him balls in difficult situations and he's going to make something out of it. And I think on the flip side of it, for the teams that we're playing against, he puts a bit of fear in their eyes so they're on their heels a bit, they're dropping back a bit more, and it gives us a little bit more space to play.”

Martino’s influence is also growing clearer. IMCF dominated possession like the Barcelona sides of old, completing more than 600 passes as they set the terms of engagement and made Orlando chase. There you could see a glimmer of a truly transformative idea: A more complete Herons side, one that may not have to depend on moments of Messi magic to succeed but instead can, at some point, comprehensively outplay their adversaries.

Their next test: a visit to the broiling August heat of Frisco, Texas on Sunday, August 6.

“We are doing well; above all we are winning,” said Martino. “This is a good starting point. We are becoming more solid with the circulation of the ball, and very forceful up top. So if we also consolidate the defensive aspect … we have a great chance, because of the footballers that we have in the midfield and up front who can score goals.”

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.