Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon
CHESTER, Penn. — Yes, Lionel Messi scored. Of course he did. At this point, it would be more of a surprise if he didn’t. He’s scored in every Leagues Cup match he's played.
The Inter Miami CF ace’s low shot from distance beat Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake in the 20th minute to push the game to 2-0 in the Herons’ favor. Inter Miami booked a place in the final with a 4-1 victory in the Leagues Cup semifinal, also earning one of three Concacaf Champions Cup slots on offer in the competition.
Yet, while Messi drew fans’ attention and news outlets’ headlines as always, the most encouraging thing for Miami heading into Saturday’s final against Nashville SC may be the fact that this wasn’t a magical Messi night.
The Argentine always can respond when called upon, but Tuesday night was happy to accept more of a supporting role rather than standing out as a star. Josef Martinez opened the scoring. Honduran teenager David Ruiz closed it. For Inter Miami manager Tata Martino, it’s a sign that the influence of Messi, of Sergio Busquets and of Jordi Alba is starting to be felt, raising the standard of everyone on the team.
“The impact they have on the group, not just Leo but Busi and Jordi, the fact they give the young players we have confidence (is big). What’s more, the big commitment he has in the game, when we win the ball back. He’s working a lot. All that is contagious to his teammates,” Martino said after the match. “It’s true the team has changed, but it’s also true the squad has changed.
“Today we have a team that’s much more competitive when it’s time for the manager to select the team. What any manager hopes for young players is they continue to grow.”
There are few better mentors than the former Barcelona trio, whose arrival has keyed a turnaround that sees Inter Miami a win away from a trophy during a MLS season that currently sees the club sitting in last place. The lessons being transmitted are sometimes non-verbal, with younger players picking up on the actions and attitude a world champion like Messi has when he trains or the way he lives his life on the field.
Sometimes, though, they’re giving advice. Ruiz said as the play developed in the 84th minute, he knew he would either score or earn an assist. Sure enough, after Messi set DeAndre Yedlin free on the wing, Ruiz used a right-footed first touch to beat Blake and score his second goal as a professional.
“They’re players that obviously try to give advice,” Ruiz said. “We’re young and sometimes try to run everyone. That’s something they’ve told us is to maintain your position. The ball is going to get to you. Stop running too much when you trap yourself.”
Ruiz, fellow 19-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi, outside back Noah Allen and others have a fair amount of games under their belt, largely earned during Inter Miami’s up-and-down start to the campaign. Martino arrived just before the Leagues Cup and said that, in a sense, he benefits from previous coaching staffs having to play the young players before the squad remake, it also made things tough on those young players being asked to get results in a competitive league.
“These are guys who had to come in during adverse situations for young guys debuting in the first division. They’ve had to learn quickly,” Martino said. “They’ve taken on experience and a number of games. Is that what a coach would want? No. You want the guys to come into a first team little by little. But for us right now, the majority of guys we have as alternatives but they may have had 20 or 30 first-division matches. So, we’ve got a more complete and more competitive squad. The internal competition is more important and guys come in because they’ve grown from months back.
“The good part of putting in these guys previously is that now we have players who recognize what it means to play in the first team.”
There may have been a risk, however low, of those professionals and young players not taking on lessons quickly or of the new arrivals being aloof and doing their own thing rather than investing in the South Florida natives breaking through. Instead, the atmosphere quickly became collaborative.
“They’re new players, but I feel like they blend in with the culture really well,” Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said after the contest. “I think their confidence and how they play, their convictions and the decisions they make on and off the field has helped the guys realize, like, ‘Dang, this is a big opportunity to do well in this competition.’”
Inter Miami has done that and more, now sitting on the cusp of a first-ever trophy in the Messi era. Then again, if Messi is able to keep putting the spotlight on his supporting cast, perhaps it will become known less as the Messi era and more of an era in which Inter Miami excelled as a team thanks to not only the on-field play but also the off-field influence of the game’s biggest star.