Lionel Messi’s debut put Red Bulls at soccer’s epicenter, but how do they sustain it?

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Messi Red Bulls
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, front right, scores a goal against the New York Red Bulls during an MLS soccer match at Red Bull Arena, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

HARRISON, NJ — For your run-of-the-mill, Saturday night match starting at 7:30 p.m. ET at Red Bull Arena, the doors for the media won’t open until 6 p.m. Parking is ample, the tailgate scene in the lot is tame and sporadic, and the stadium for New York Red Bulls games is, at the very most, three-quarters full. 

This Saturday, in particular though, brought Lionel Messi to a Major League Soccer match just 20 miles west of New York City — surging the No. 5-ranked sport in North America’s “Big 4” and an afterthought of the sport-crazed Big Apple to the forefront for one night only.

An immovable line of traffic began to queue roughly a mile-and-a-half away from the stadium four hours before kick-off. The normally empty lot was jammed with tents, flags, barbecues, and vendors — so many vendors. Rather than waving the customary red and white of the hosts, they shook pink Inter Miami tops emblazoned with the No. 10 on the back in the faces of any passerby. Forty dollars for one, but if you played hard to get, they’d quickly lower it to $30. 

Granted there was plenty of pink and black — along with Argentinian Albiceleste — already being worn by spectators who had dished out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the chance to get a glimpse of the World Cup champion, himself. 

Lionel Messi Red Bulls
Fans walk by an image of Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi as they arrive to attend an MLS soccer match against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The Red Bulls opened up their media gate at 4:30 and those accustomed to breezing through security checks were met by a winding line of writers and photographers suddenly interested in MLS. By 6:45 p.m., the 25,000-seat stadium was at full capacity when the average attendance at the arena was just over 17,000. In fact, the officially-announced attendance for the night was a stadium-record 26,276. 

This is the Messi effect — the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, reigning World Cup champion, and the man considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all time having made his MLS debut with Inter Miami against the Red Bulls on Saturday night after starting on the bench for the first 60 minutes.

Amidst the excruciating wait, one would have thought fans were being withheld from seeing The Beatles playing Shea Stadium in 1964 or the Pope visiting Yankee Stadium in 2008.

The National Anthem was delayed by chants of “MESSI.” By the sixth minute, the entire stadium broke out into a chorus of “WE WANT MESSI,” and continued its reprise for over an hour. Fans rushed to the front rows, leaning over desperately with phones outstretched just to see if they could catch the top of his head.

“When we found out that he wouldn’t be starting, I expected there was going to be a couple of angry fans,” Miami right-back DeAndre Yedlin said. “If I was a kid or a fan and I came, I would want to see the greatest to ever play the game, as well. So I can’t blame them.”

In the half-hour they got him, though, they saw him took over, recording a goal in the 89th minute in Inter Miami’s 2-0 win over New York — continuing the ascension of MLS’s Eastern Conference’s worst team (they won just five of their first 22 matches before Messi arrived during the Leagues Cup break) to a completely different dimension.

Making his Inter Miami debut in Leagues Cup play, the former Barcelona superstar — who also brought former teammates in holding midfielder Sergio Busquets and wing-back Jordi Alba to MLS — scored 10 goals in seven matches, leading Miami to their first major trophy. He then recorded two assists in the US Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday night over FC Cincinnati to advance to another notable final. 

Lionel Messi Red Bulls
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates, top, after his goal against the New York Red Bulls during an MLS soccer match at Red Bull Arena, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Now, as he’s tasked with turning the fortunes of Miami around and leading it to the playoffs, he’s beginning to leave a wake of awe-struck opponents in the United States’ top flight that might never have dreamed of playing against a player of his caliber. 

“This is great for the league,” Red Bulls captain Sean Nealis said. “It’s great for all these clubs to have him come play and display his kind of great ability. I think the league has grown tremendously throughout the years and it’ll continue to do so.

“It’s good to see him come over here and play and then play well, I think it’s a testament to his ability and how he still has it.”

Now as Messi leaves Harrison firmly in the dust, how can the Red Bulls sustain this fever pitch?

For a team that’s on the fringe of the playoff picture and will sooner or later be overtaken by Inter Miami as it begins its rise up the standings, the Red Bulls are very much operating like a small-market club despite its New York designation, owning the third-lowest payroll in the league. 

They haven’t made a showstopping international signing since the days of Thierry Henry early in the last decade. Meanwhile, the league has seen the likes of Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Vela, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard cycle through — the latter three playing with crosstown rivals New York City FC.

Instead, the Red Bulls are relying on developing young talent into regular contributors — a noble concept for any team looking to attain sustainable success, but not the recipe to put butts in the seats for a sport that needs flair to catch on in the United States. 

While Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpré said last week that ownership will make a “significant investment,” to the youngest roster in MLS — something that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade — head coach Troy Lesesne is hoping lightning can be caught with some of the franchise’s burgeoning talent. 

Twenty-one-year-old defender John Tolkin featured for the US Men’s National Team at the Gold Cup this summer and was named an MLS All-Star, 20-year-old Daniel Edelman captained the US under-20 national team to a CONCACAF championship last summer. 

“I’d love to use the opportunity to say that anyone that was new to the stadium tonight hopefully got to have a great experience,” Lesesne said. “I hope that they come back, and they also got to see so many young players from our club get opportunities. Our club promotes young players to give them an opportunity to try to get to the stage, to the level of someone like Jordi Alba. That’s what John Michael Tolkin is trying to do right now and our club provides that opportunity.

“Daniel Edelman is trying to get to the level of Sergio Busquets… I hope [the fans] come back and support the young players. For the supporters who have been with us the entire year that were with us last week, I loved the way they tried to combat the noise of the night, the Messi chant. It’s tough to combat, but our supporters were right there with us, pushing us, and we are going to need them to push us this final stretch of the season.”

For more on the Red Bulls, Lionel Messi, and MLS, visit AMNY.com