Neither Messi, nor Miami, has come back to earth
By Victor Mather
After all the hubbub over Lionel Messi’s five goals in his first three games with Inter Miami, soccer fans relaxed a bit, knowing that the law of averages was bound to catch up to him.
And it did, but only a little. In his next three games, Messi had four goals. He now has nine goals in six games. And Inter Miami, frankly poor before Messi showed up, has six straight wins in the Leagues Cup tournament and has advanced to the final.
Let’s recap. Messi entered Game 1 against Cruz Azul of Mexico early in the second half. He scored deep into injury time to win the game, 2-1. He had two goals in a 4-0 win against Atlanta and two more in a 3-1 win over Orlando.
It seemed like the good times might end in his first away game, at Dallas on Aug. 6. Despite Messi opening the scoring with a shot from outside the box, Miami trailed by 3-1 after an hour and by 4-2 with 10 minutes to play. But Messi curled in a free kick that was headed in for an own goal, then effortlessly spun another free kick over a leaping wall to tie the score. That took the game to penalties, and Messi duly scored the first of five perfect pens for Miami.
Messi scored the final goal, a one-touch shot from close, in a 4-0 rout of Charlotte in the quarterfinals last Friday.
In the semis in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, Messi scored an absurd goal from more than 35 yards out. He shot before anyone in the stands, or in the Philly defense, seemed to even consider the possibility that he would, or could. Keeper Andre Blake’s despairing dive was far too late. That game ended in another rout, 4-1.
That small sample size of three games has become a slightly larger sample size of six games. And who can resist dividing nine by six and noting Messi’s 1.5 goal per game ratio? Surely such a high number is not sustainable? After all, last year’s leading scorer in MLS, Hany Mukhtar, averaged 0.7 goals a game, and even the amazing Erling Haaland had a 1.0 ratio in the Premier League last season.
Yet Messi has defied logic before. With Barcelona in La Liga he averaged 1.35 goals a game in 2011-12 and 1.44 in 2012-13. A decade later he is exceeding those marks.
Messi is getting the headlines. But which is the more remarkable headline: “All-Time Great Player Plays Well”? Or “Bad Team Suddenly Starts Winning”? Miami winning six games in a row looked extremely unlikely before Messi’s arrival, as its 5-14-3 league record attested. It has scored 21 goals in the Leagues Cup and surrendered 7. That plus-14 goal difference would be second best in the MLS table, where the teams have played more than 20 games each.
Inter has also added two former Messi teammates at Barcelona, midfielder Sergio Busquets and defender Jordi Alba, who has a goal and two assists so far. Robert Taylor, a Finnish wingback, seems invigorated by Messi’s arrival and has four goals and three assists in the Leagues Cup. But make no mistake, this is Messi’s story.
Inter Miami plays Nashville, and its attacking star Mukhtar, on Saturday night. Miami is favored. But those are not the most surprising odds currently being offered.
Win or lose Saturday, Messi and Miami return to the MLS regular season on Aug. 26. Using any normal logic, they are dead and buried. They are last in the Eastern Conference, 12 points and six places out of the final playoff spot with 12 games to play. And even if they rally, the MLS playoffs are difficult to win. Teams sneaking in the bottom two spots must win five rounds, four of them single elimination games.
Surely even Messi couldn’t pull off that kind of parlay? Or could he? Oddsmakers currently have Miami as the third favorite to win MLS at just 7-1.