Lionel Messi is celebrating a goal-tastic MLS debut…
In his long-awaited Major League Soccer debut, the 36-year-old Argentine soccer star netted a late goal to put the seal on a 2-0 win for Inter Miami at the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
After playing nine games in just over a month following his arrival in South Florida, leading his new team to the Leagues Cup title and the final of the U.S. Open Cup, Messi was handed a well-earned rest and began the game on the substitute’s bench as Miami returned to league play in New Jersey.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner made his entrance to a thunderous reception in the 60th minute, and still had enough time to provide the fans with a moment to treasure.
He both set up and finished the goal, playing a pass that perhaps no one else on the field or stadium could even see — let alone play — to Benjamin Cremaschi before receiving the ball back for a simple finish in the 89th minute.
It was Messi’s eighth goal already for his new team and matched the goal he scored in his one previous appearance as a substitute — in his debut against Cruz Azul on July 21.
With Messi’s effort adding to a 37th-minute goal by Paraguayan midfielder Diego Gómez, Miami secured what was a much-needed win for the star-studded team in its uphill task to make the playoffs later this year.
Miami entered the game with an 11-game MLS winless streak that included eight defeats and had just one road victory this season. It’s 22 points were the fewest among the league’s 29 teams and there was a 12-point gap to erase to get into a playoff position.
That coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino saw that his team could prosper without Messi for an hour of the game will be a welcome bonus, particularly as the forward will be needed for the start of Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign next month.
However, there was doubtless initial disappointment for many watching on in Red Bull Arena and beyond.
The streets around Red Bull Arena were packed 2 1/2 hours before the match, filled with dozens of scalpers and people selling unlicensed Messi jerseys. A simulcast of the game was scheduled on a videoboard in Times Square.
Inside the stadium, fans began a chant of “we want Messi” within the first 10 minutes of kickoff.
Instead there was a chance for Miami’s three young South American signings, who joined as the less-heralded half of Miami’s summer squad overhaul alongside the three big-name ex-Barcelona stars — Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Fellow Argentine Facundo Farías took Messi’s spot supporting Leonardo Campana in attack, Gomez offered intensity in the midfield and another Argentine Tomás Avilés held thee Red Bulls at bay in defense.
And it was Gomez who put Miami ahead with his first goal in Miami pink. After Alba’s free-kick had been half-cleared, Noah Allen sent the ball back into the box and Gomez was left free to turn and finish into the bottom corner of the net.
Messi, his eyes focused on the field throughout, rose from the bench to applaud the 20-year-old’s goal and a 1-0 lead.
The noise level inside the stadium rose once more at the start of the second half as Messi began to warm up on the sideline. It would not be long before he made his entrance, gracing the field in an MLS game for the first time more than 2 1/2 months since he announced his stunning decision to continue his career in the U.S.
At that point Miami was coming under growing pressure from the Red Bulls. But Messi’s presence, coupled with that of fellow substitute Sergio Busquets, allowed Miami to regain its composure and superiority.
His late brilliance this time was just the icing on the cake.