Messi's Influence Miami's Leagues Cup Metamorphosis
The phenomenon of heightened significance enveloping so-called 'big clubs' is undeniable, where every action, utterance, and strategy is magnified and meticulously analyzed. Gerardo "Tata" Martino is well-acquainted with such demanding atmospheres, having contributed his expertise to several of these prestigious institutions during his illustrious career. Presently, he finds himself embroiled in another such environment as the head of Inter Miami CF.
This distinct gravitas was unmistakable on a recent Friday evening, as the Herons surged to a commanding 4-0 triumph in the Leagues Cup quarterfinals against Charlotte FC at DRV PNK Stadium. The match featured another exemplary performance from Lionel Messi, who has astoundingly found the net in every game since his arrival in South Florida, amassing an impressive tally of eight goals and three assists across five matches.
Following the resounding victory, Martino faced an array of questions from a packed assembly of journalists during the postgame press conference. The queries spanned a surreal spectrum, encompassing topics ranging from Miami's penalty-kick order (surprisingly, Josef Martínez, not Messi, executed and converted the team's first-half spot-kick) to the ongoing wildfires in Hawai'i, and even delving into his squad's remarkable transformation from MLS cellar dwellers to Leagues Cup contenders.
In the midst of the press conference, a bold journalist inquired, in Spanish, whether it was true that the responsibility for any failure to secure first place in the tournament rested solely on Martino's shoulders. With a knowing smile, Martino responded, "It's a question you seem to relish, one that generates some drama. We will undoubtedly shoulder the responsibilities we are entrusted with. Every coach in any team must willingly embrace this risk."
He continued, "While you are free to inquire, question, and deliberate, it's worth noting that at the outset of this tournament, there were 47 participating teams. Remarkably, Miami, a team that was languishing at the bottom of the MLS standings, has progressed to the semifinals. This speaks to a moment that, at the very least, compels us to entertain significant expectations."
Lionel Messi has cultivated his legendary status by making the extraordinary appear ordinary, and he is replicating this feat once again with a team that had been subjected to ridicule and defeat just a few weeks prior. Following a stretch of over a month without a victory, the Herons have notched five wins and no losses, with 17 goals scored and only six conceded since Messi's debut alongside his old friend Sergio Busquets in July.
Messi's impact transcends mere productivity and stardom; he serves as Miami's linchpin across various aspects of the game and beyond. Martino attests, "Beyond the collective efforts of the team, our current trajectory is significantly shaped by what Messi has contributed in these last five games. It's not solely about his individual contributions but also about the opportunities he generates for his teammates. There's an enhanced confidence in the entire team when playing alongside him."
Martino further elaborates, "It's perplexing how a player positioned 40 or 50 meters from the opponent's goal can instill an anticipation of a goal, even when a full team stands between him and the target. This is facilitated by his teammates providing him with passes, enabling him to dictate the subsequent play. The sensation is incredibly positive when we find Leo, and he determines the course of action. Moreover, his influence extends beyond the field; he has emerged as a leader within the group, both in training and on the pitch. This leadership isn't confined to the realm of sports; his presence has catalyzed numerous transformations."
The pace of progress ushered in by the Messi era at Inter Miami CF has been remarkable, allowing Martino and his staff to tick off items on their checklist at a rate that defied initial expectations when Martino assumed his role at the close of June. The team's formation and command of the tempo have evolved with each match, and their satisfaction at securing their second shutout during the ongoing winning streak was palpable.
One of the rising stars, Robert Taylor, noted, "Our focus was solely on maintaining a clean sheet. I was confident we would score goals and create opportunities, making it imperative to keep our opponents from scoring."
Inter Miami CF dominated their counterparts from North Carolina across numerous statistical metrics, far surpassing Charlotte in terms of expected goals. With an early goal, courtesy of Martinez's penalty kick, and a 2-0 halftime lead, the only suspense of the evening in Fort Lauderdale revolved around whether Messi would register his name on the scoresheet once more. True to form, Messi did not disappoint, calmly finishing a pass from Leo Campana in the final moments, capitalizing on another defensive lapse by Charlotte.
Charlotte FC's head coach, Christian Lattanzio, remarked, "This Miami team has undergone a complete transformation. While no clear favorites emerge in the semifinals, the inclusion of Messi, Busquets, and [Jordi] Alba in the lineup undoubtedly fosters an aspiration to emerge victorious in every competition they partake in."
Likewise, CLTFC's Italian manager acknowledged that a late surge from last place to a berth in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, a dramatic turnaround once deemed statistically improbable, now appears increasingly feasible with each virtuoso display from Messi.
Moreover, he mused, if the Argentine icon continues to grace the postseason, who's to say that Inter Miami CF wouldn't instantly be heralded as frontrunners for the MLS Cup as well?
"As seen in the past in this league, if they manage to secure a playoff spot, they indeed stand a chance there," Lattanzio commented. "I recall a year with Seattle [in 2016], where they entered the playoffs at a later stage and ultimately triumphed. The possibility of any team winning the MLS Cup remains, underscoring the allure and magic of the playoffs."
Inter Miami CF's journey in the Leagues Cup advances with a semifinal clash against reigning Eastern Conference champions Philadelphia Union, scheduled for Tuesday evening at Subaru Park (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).