HARRISON, NJ — All Lionel Messi needed was 30 minutes to send a capacity crowd who spent hundreds of dollars to see him, pined for him for 60 minutes, into a satisfied frenzy — and to create a core memory for New York sports fans.
The legendary forward, subbed on in the 60th minute, scored his 11th goal in nine matches for Inter Miami in the 89th minute, a simple tap-in at the front of goal as his side defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-0 at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. The appearance was Messi’s MLS debut after appearing in seven Leagues Cup matches and a US Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday.
“He had an impact on the game,” Red Bulls captain Sean Nealis said. “He’s a great player… we have to be better in facilitating our style of play throughout the whole game.”
Receiving the ball in the middle of the box after a brilliant move to find him, Messi threaded a pass to the right wing to Benjamin Cremaschi. The Miami forward instantly played it back to the middle where Messi’s unmarkable run found him all alone with nothing but an open net in front of him leaving Red Bulls keeper Carlos Coronel without a prayer.
“This was something that I tried to communicate all week long to the group as well as something we were well aware of in general,” Red Bulls head coach Troy Lesesne said. “They have a lot of quality… and you have to respect that quality.”
It’s the first step in the league for a Miami team that entered play ranked dead-last in the Eastern Conference. The three points immediately hopped them over lowly Toronto FC, who has played three more goals.
For the Red Bulls, the loss makes their hill to the playoffs a bit steeper. They remain three points back of ninth place in the East, which is the final playoff spot, with the ninth-place Chicago Fire now having played one fewer match.
“That’s what was being focused on all week,” Lesesne said. “We had a job to do. We wanted to see later focus on that.”
With Messi starting the match on the bench — and amidst a first half that heard patrons at Red Bull Arena chanting desperately for the Argentinian talisman — Diego Gomez gave Inter Miami the lead in the 37th minute off a failed Red Bulls attempt to clear a free kick awarded seconds earlier following an Andres Reyes infraction.
After Miami regained possession roughly 10 yards outside the box, a low ball was played into the feet of Gomez in the box, who managed to pop it up with his back to goal, turn, and finish on the volley low and to the left of Carlos Coronel’s outstretched glove.
The breakthrough came just two minutes after the Red Bulls left a golden chance on the table when Omir Fernandez dragged Dru Yearwood’s cross just wide of the post from close range.
New York was awarded a penalty in the 42nd minute when a shot by Fernandez was originally deemed to have been handled in the box, but a VAR check quickly overturned the ruling.
All the while, fans desperately chanted for Messi to come on to make his MLS debut at Red Bull Arena.
Two minutes into the second half, they got their first legitimate view of him as he came out to warm up with teammates behind the Red Bulls’ goal.
While a faction of the fan base had eyes glued on Messi, the Red Bulls nearly found an equalizer in the 50th minute when Fernandez’s header off a corner was just touched over the bar by Miami keeper Drake Callender.
Seven minutes later, Daniel Edelman’s cross found Tom Barlow in the box and while the struggling striker managed to bring it down, his low attempt was kicked out by Callender.
The Red Bulls’ push was all forgotten as Inter Miami coach Tata Martino summoned Messi from the touchline and quickly got him into his uniform.
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He was on in the 60th minute, but could only watch in his first MLS minutes as Frankie Amaya’s shot from distance trickled just wide of the left post, and the Red Bulls continued to ask questions of the Miami defense upon his introduction.
“We were trying to push the tempo. I was trying to get us to continue to do what we were doing here even if there was a chance of the greatest player ever coming on.”
The Red Bulls held Messi within reason in his first 20 minutes, limiting a majority of his chances to that of attempted breakout passes to spark a Miami counterattack. Within a flash, though, he took the game over. He went on a marauding run in the 83rd minute that began inside the Miami half and ended just outside the New York box, though an attempted through ball was blocked off.
Moments later, he had a free kick from just outside the box deflected off the top of the Red Bulls’ wall.