FORT LAUDERDALE — Wednesday translated the spectacle of Lionel Messi’s past month. It framed the magic that started with the last-breath goal in his first Inter Miami game right through the visionary pass that led to his give-and-goal that his coach replayed 10 times to unravel how he did it.
None of that happened Wednesday night. Nothing happened, really.
“Frustrating,’’ was the word Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller kept reaching for in explaining the 0-0 tie with Nashville.
This night showed everything Messi has done hasn’t been quite as easy as he’s made it look. Miss a pass by a half-step, as happened, and the play was lost. A teammate run out of sync with his thinking and, again, the play is lost.
His shots were blocked, tipped, missed by degrees or in the case after a slippery move to shake free in the final minute his hard shot from the right side resulted in a kick save by Nashville goalie Elliot Panicco. The spectacular didn’t happen for once. It offered the prism how rare the run of nine wins was since he came to Inter Miami with Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
A week ago, Inter Miami dismantled Nashville to win the Leagues Cup trophy that was paraded around the field in a pregame ceremony. Not bad, huh? From the worst in American soccer pre-Messi to the best in a two-country tournament with him and his friends, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba?
Inter Miami took that trophy and Nashville took a certain lesson from its 4-1 loss. It’s can’t compete squarely with Inter Miami anymore. So, It played a defensive, stiflingly boring game in Wednesday’s rematch. Clogged the front of the goal with defenders. Sent players on offense only on counter-attacks.
That’s how respect is shown in soccer.
“They sat back with nine or 10 guys at a time, pretty frustrating, but we have to get used to it,” said Miller, who saved a certain goal with a second-half block. “It’s the first time a team did that to us so blatantly That’s probably what most teams are going to do against us now.
“We have to come up with more ways as a team to break the opponent down when they’re sitting on the low block and move the ball faster and not just depend on Leo.”
Messi is a lot of things: creative, elusive, opportunistic and dramatic. But the more understated trait he brings seems to be a sensitivity to building a team. The stories of his joining teammates’ phone chats, or talks with players, show he understands the need to make this a collective idea.
Pro sports doesn’t lend itself to child development, but that’s what the team’s elite-level imports helped to do in turning around an Inter Miami team that hadn’t won in 11 games before they arrived. There always was talent. Midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, 18, and goalie Drake Callender were called up Wednesday to the U.S. national team.
The team concept, the one they’re still working on, is ever evolving against the likes of Nashville’s game-clogging strategy. Inter Miami had chances. Messi sent Alba in alone, for a lost second, on goal in the first half. He then found Robert Taylor twice out front with passes that couldn’t be converted into good shots.
Messi was pulled down outside the penalty box resulting in his direct kick in the 56th minute. His direct kick deflected off the Nashville wall of players. It happened again, from a little further out, in the 82nd minute.
And so Wednesday went. No goals. No magic. No win for the first time in his 10 Inter Miami games. And yes, that matters, as Miami tries to climb into the MLS playoff race. It also matters because Messi won’t win America by charismatic force of personality, considering he hasn’t shown any in the sole news conference he’s given (he again didn’t speak after Wednesday’s game).
He’s winning the old-fashioned way: By winning. And he’s won plenty until Wednesday’s tie. Even that offered a prism of perspective of this first month. It’s not as easy as it’s looked, especially when a team respects you so much it only thinks defense.