With Messi, Inter Miami claimed the Leagues Cup. Now what?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Major League Soccer didn’t have to wait long for its cherished Lionel Messi moment.

On Saturday night in front of a packed crowd at Geodis Park, Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup, prevailing over Nashville SC via penalties 10-9 after the teams finished 90 minutes tied at one goal apiece. At that point, the celebrations began.

Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham — who’d endured an odyssey just to get the team in Miami — was hugging everyone in sight. That included defender Ian Fray, who had torn his ACL for the third time just minutes into Messi’s first match against Cruz Azul in July.

Later, Messi sauntered over to the awards stand, and after receiving a peck on the cheek from co-owner Jorge Mas — the man who had engineered the Argentine’s move stateside — he took home the tournament MVP trophy. He scored 10 goals in the competition, including Miami’s tally on this night. He later called over DeAndre Yedlin, and the two held up the absurdly large Leagues Cup; the confetti rained down, the players started dancing and the party was on. It later spilled over into manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s postgame news conference, with players bursting in and dousing him in champagne.

“It was a very difficult game,” Beckham said. “But it was just our night tonight.”

As much as the whole idea of the Leagues Cup has been criticized (expanded this year to include all 47 Liga MX and MLS teams), it meant a ton to Inter Miami. A month ago, with the team having the fewest points in all of MLS, it seemed debatable as to whether one player — or even three of them — could turn Miami’s fortunes around. But after seven victories, including two by penalty shootout, the Herons have raised a trophy for the first time in their history.

To put into context just how rapid Inter Miami’s ascent has been, Beckham had to wait until his fifth season with the LA Galaxy to hoist his first trophy, the 2011 MLS Cup. Messi has done it in less than five weeks, and there could be more to come.

‘We know that this guy is magical’

Before kickoff, the extent to which Messi has permeated the consciousness of fans is evident. Everywhere one looks, there are Messi jerseys of all kinds: Argentina, Barcelona, Inter Miami.

OK, maybe not all kinds; there are no PSG-era Messi jerseys to be found.

The home fans are aware of what’s on tap as well. How could they not be? Across the street from Geodis Park, Nashville’s home venue, is a barbershop owned by Jars of Clay guitarist Stephen Mason, aka Soccer Moses. Every game, he dresses up as Moses and holds up a sign that reads “Let My People Goal.”

This time around, he’s set up a Moses vs. Messi-ah clash, and says he has gotten his transformation from Stephen to Moses down to “about three minutes.” He also has started his own march to the match, appropriately titled “The Exodus.”

“The liturgy is still developing,” he quips, but it has made considerable progress. On the marquee adorning his barbershop, The Handsomizer, Mason has added his own special touch. It says: “Welcome Lionel Messi — the Argentinian Hany Mukhtar,” an ode to Nashville SC’s own creative force and reigning MLS MVP.

Earlier in the day, Clay Trainum, the authority on all things Nashville soccer history, sits in an eatery in the southern part of Nashville and prays that the final doesn’t go to penalties. After shootout wins over FC Cincinnati and Club America, he feels NSC’s shootout karma has been exhausted. Little did he know how prescient his concerns would turn out to be.

The Miami fans present are feeling the love, supremely confident that the side would raise its first trophy. And why not? With the exception of a penalty shootout win over FC Dallas, Miami has laid waste to its competition. The depressing days of earlier this season are a distant memory, replaced by the team’s breathtaking play in reaching the final.

“We know that this guy [Messi] is magical,” says Chris Moramarco, a founding member of Miami’s Vice City 1896 supporters group who drove 13 hours to attend the match. “We’ve seen him do it over and over. We see that his intensity doesn’t drop. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing for. This is what he does.

“You can see that this guy transcends culture, nationalities. And I think that’s the beauty of what we’re about to witness.”

‘You can see they love the game’

Twenty-four hours before kickoff, Miami GM Chris Henderson is channeling his inner John “Hannibal” Smith of “A-Team” fame. He loves it when a plan comes together — it is a vital part of his job, after all — but the degree to which Miami’s capture of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba has worked has exceeded even his expectations. Granted, Inter Miami’s plan ran deeper than just bringing in the aforementioned trio — Henderson did what he could to bring in players who were good on the ball, the better to maximize Messi’s influence once he arrived.

All that said, the rapidity with which the trio has assimilated to all things MLS has been astonishing. So has the ability of the team’s existing players to adapt to their new teammates. There were some hiccups in Miami’s vision: Injuries to midfielders Jean Mota and Gregore meant that the team’s young players got thrown into the deep end sooner than expected.

“We suffered a lot early this year,” Henderson says. “All our young guys got a lot of opportunities with these injuries. We didn’t see it in results, but this experience really helped their confidence, and a player like [Benji] Cremaschi or Noah Allen, just being able to get these minutes and then integrate with the team, has been really good.”

Granted, you’re talking about players at the extreme end of the talent scale, but even manager Tata Martino said there would need to be an adjustment period. Yet the tranquility that has accompanied their arrival has given them the calm to focus on the task at hand. For Henderson, the adaptation period was near instantaneous.

“It was really the first training session,” Henderson says. “Alba came a little bit after, but Messi and Busquets stepped on the field, and instantly we were creating 10 times the amount of chances in attack because of these guys. You can see the difference in all the players around them. Some guys were nervous the first couple training sessions, but the level and the confidence of the rest of the group, and just the quality that they brought, it really did surprise me.”

It helps when a superstar comes in with the right attitude, as too often in MLS, players from abroad have arrived thinking they could just operate on cruise control. Not this trio. That was vital given that Miami was — and still is — in last place when league play resumes.

“They’re asking, ‘What tournaments do we play? How can we win trophies? What’s the pathway to get there?'” Henderson says. “They wanted to know how they could win and how they could help our team turn around. That is a huge sign. And just the way they come out and play every day. You can see they love the game. It was really just a transition for them just coming in and changing the whole mentality and the whole level of the group.”

The magic of Messi & Co. has left the eyeballs of observers so transfixed that the arrival of another Argentine, Martino, has been overlooked to a degree.

Martino ticked a multitude of managerial boxes for the Miami project when he joined Inter Miami on July 10. There is his previous working relationship with Messi, Busquets and Alba when he was at Barcelona, plus his time with Messi as manager of Argentina. There’s also the success Martino had with Atlanta United. It all serves to give him a unique skill set of having managed the world’s best while also understanding the vagaries of MLS, from the arcane roster rules to the travel and weather challenges.

And perhaps more ominously for the league, the packed schedule of games has limited Martino’s time with his players on the training field. He hasn’t really sunk his teeth into some of the deeper issues — mostly on defense — affecting his team.

“I’m really looking forward to a period where he can really start to work on some of the things he wants to,” Henderson says.

The aura prevails … barely

Nashville’s Gary Smith has seen a fair bit during his time in the league as well. He won an MLS Cup with an unfashionable Colorado Rapids team in 2010, while his steady hand has helped Nashville reach the postseason in every year of its brief existence. He’s not one to get overly excited about a particular run of games, or the emergence of a player. But even he is in awe of what he’s seen from Inter Miami’s transformation over the past month.

“I’ve been astounded by what the team and the organization have been able to achieve in such a short space of time,” he says before the match, referring to Inter Miami. “The way that they’ve taken care of just about every problem they’ve run into so far has, has been quite amazing.”

Smith even acknowledges that he’s seen something akin to an intimidation factor that the league hasn’t quite come to grips with yet.

“You’re talking about the greatest [player] in any sport. There’s an aura that’s wrapped around that — there has to be,” he says. “There’s not just a talent. The talent on its own, of course, is good enough, but the aura of that person not only affects, I’m sure, opponents, and to keep a clear focus and vision of what you’re after as an opposing team is vital. But it’s certainly affecting officials as well.”

It’s affected the players most of all. Miami’s talent infusion has produced a boost almost steroid-like in its speed, and it’s resulted in a new reality on the field: The window by which teams can get away with mistakes has narrowed considerably.

Errors are now punished. Ruthlessly. If a keeper gets his angles wrong or his footwork is off, Messi is there to take advantage. If Busquets isn’t closed down and has ample time to pick out a killer pass, he will. If a team coughs up a free-kick opportunity, well, that’s practically a tap-in for Messi.

Yet Smith is not about to willingly play the part of the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters of Messi & Co., and as it turned out, Nashville doesn’t. After a feisty opening period to Saturday’s Leagues Cup final, Messi takes advantage of a momentary bit of chaos in the 23rd minute, when a wayward clearance falls to him at the top of the box. That allows him to dance around Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman with the help of a slight deflection, and he fires past Elliot Panicco in the Nashville goal.

In previous matches, Miami jumping out ahead was akin to running downhill, but Nashville is one of the most disciplined sides in the league, the players sticking to their task. Their 57th-minute equalizer is as ugly as Messi’s was sublime, as a header from Fafà Picault is deflected and then ricochets into the net off Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender.

There are stretches when Miami is made to suffer and its passes aren’t as crisp. But then the Herons come agonizingly close to winning the match. Messi, for once, isn’t quite as clinical as he normally is, hitting the post in the 71st minute. Substitute Leo Campana has a clear opportunity in second-half stoppage time, but tries to chip Panicco and then with his attempt going wide, hits the post with his follow-up attempt. Then in the shootout, Victor Ulloa could have won it, only to have his attempt saved.

But like much of this Leagues Cup, the soccer gods continue to smile on Miami. Callender turns hero, first saving a pair of shots in second-half stoppage time, then converting his attempt and saving Panicco’s, and the Herons have their first trophy.

One question that has surrounded Miami since Messi’s arrival is obvious: How long can they sustain this run of form?

At present, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. They’ve won at home. They’ve gotten results on the road, looking like the consummate favorites throughout.

“When we walk into the places now, we expect to win,” defender DeAndre Yedlin says. “I can’t say that was the fact every time we played before. I think just the overall feeling in the team, the confidence of the team, right now we’re in a good moment.

“It’s strange because we’re still kind of learning on the go, but it’s good that we were able to win this while still learning.”

There’s hope in youth as well. Eighteen-year-old Cremaschi is soaking in the master class he’s getting from his new teammates every day and isn’t daunted by the pressure of living up to their expectations. In fact, he’s welcoming it.

“Obviously, there’s pressure trying to satisfy these types of players, but I try to focus on me, on what I could do to help them, and I try to not play with pressure,” he says.

But for the next 24 hours, Miami’s focus will be on the trophy now in its possession.

Beckham says, “Tonight is a night that we are going to enjoy.”