Who can stop Lionel Messi now? Ironically, Inter Miami themselves!

Lionel Messi is captivating America with his Inter Miami heroics… but ironically, the biggest threat to his soccer revolution is Miami themselves. Last in MLS, 12 points off the playoffs and 12 games left… it’s a mountain to climb, even for him

  • Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to their first ever trophy on Saturday night
  • This weekend, MLS returns and Messi has a lot of damage to repair with Miami
  • DailyMail.com provides all the latest international sports news

He really is making America sit up and take notice of soccer, you know.

Saturday afternoon, downtown Nashville, the heartbeat of Music City. Around the Ryman Auditorium, where Johnny Cash carved out his legend and the honky-tonk bars are packed with people in cowboy boots and western hats, there was plenty of Miami pink on show in the blazing Tennessee sunshine. And the blues of Argentina and Barcelona.

‘There’s this soccer player in town today,’ explained a bemused barista in one of the quieter coffee shops. ‘Everyone wants a ticket for it.’

If you wanted to learn the names of other Miami players, you wouldn’t be able to by reading the back of those pink jerseys. Every single one was ‘Messi 10’. Try and avoid him if you can. It’s genuinely hard to.

The scenes were spectacular on Saturday night. Messi scored a breathtaking goal, his 10th in seven games, and Miami edged a gripping final against Nashville on penalties in front of a capacity crowd of 31,109 fans – who paid at least $450 each for a ticket – to lift their first ever trophy.

Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to their first ever trophy on Saturday night, beating Nashville

It marks the end of an incredible five weeks since the World Cup winner joined Miami

Messi celebrated on the field with David Beckham, one of the Miami co-owners 

Deandre Yedlin, who gave up the captain’s armband for Messi when he joined last month, said the team is ‘learning as they go’ with their new star and the prospect of Miami finding an extra gear or two is thrilling – unless you’re a rival Major League Soccer team.

But as the Leagues Cup ends, Miami’s attention is about to turn back to MLS with a third of the season left and a reality check will hit, if it hasn’t already: The thing most likely to stop Messi right now, as he captivates a growing number here in this vast land by the week, is the Miami team itself.

Before Messi joined, Miami was in disarray. Winless in 11, losing games with embarrassing mistakes and last in the MLS Eastern Conference with a miserable tally of 18 points from 22 games.

That’s where they’ll resume with Messi. Miami need to climb to ninth, six places higher, to reach the post-season playoffs and have a shot at the MLS Cup. They are 14 points away from that place – which is occupied by Chicago Fire.

They have two games in hand and 12 games left. So it is doable, yes. But with such little margin for error, it is absolutely not guaranteed. There are tough games in that run, including a trip to MLS Cup holders LAFC with the wily, cunning Giorgio Chiellini ready to greet them just three days after a repeat of the weekend’s final against Nashville in late August.

Make no mistake, this is a mountain to climb for Messi and Miami but the tantalizing thing about it is that they could just do it.

Messi will know by now that here in the United States, every sporting season revolves around the playoffs. If he isn’t there, it would be nothing short of a disaster for Major League Soccer as it looks to enforce its reputation in the US and beyond.

The MLS playoffs start late October and by then, the NFL season is in full swing. If MLS wants more Americans to take notice of soccer at that time of year, Messi and Miami simply must be there.

Messi has made a phenomenal early impact in the United States but there is more left to do

Attention will soon turn to Miami’s outside bid to force their way into the MLS playoffs

Fans were everywhere in Messi shirts on Saturday night before the final against Nashville

Miami have emerged victorious in all seven games Messi has played but two of those were via penalties – a chance they won’t have in league play. Furthermore, teams are getting smarter in how they take on this new Miami.

Philadelphia Union second guessed themselves into submission in the first half of its semifinal against Miami last week but when they attacked with two up front in the second, they created numerous chances.

Nashville squeezed the midfield in the first half on Saturday night and before Messi’s stroke of genius, he was forced to come deep looking for the ball, facing his own goal. Across 90 minutes, he was shackled fairly well – he scored with a piece of magic and a second nearly arrived from a shot from 25 yards that cannoned off the post, rather than the defense being dismantled.

Teams will become a little less star struck, too. Each stadium is packed for Messi and that will impact Miami’s opponents as well – many will raise their game for him with the eyes of the world watching.

Miami also has a busy schedule. Celebrations would have been curbed on Saturday night with a US Open semifinal to plan for on Wednesday against Cincinnati – the runaway leaders in the Eastern Conference that Miami are last in.

‘We’ll be ready – we have to be,’ Yedlin said after Saturday’s win. ‘It’s an opportunity to win another trophy. It’s great we’ve been able to win this one while we are still learning on the go.’

Of course, like Yedlin said, Miami are improving too. They are more tactically astute under Tata Martino – with all due respect to his predecessor Phil Neville – and Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have spread quality throughout the side.

Messi scored a stunning goal for Miami in the final – but more heroics are needed by Miami

Sergio Busquets joined Miami at the same time as Messi and said it has been intense so far

‘It has been a frenetic month,’ Busquets said on Saturday night. ‘Lots of games, at home and away. Everything has gone so quick. But we have had a great tournament, finishing today in an exciting way with penalties.’

Busquets was superb, putting in the hard yards when it counted on Saturday, especially under Nashville pressure. Always showing for the ball, keeping it, moving it, turning out of trouble.

The hard work is about to start all over again for Miami when they return to MLS action in the Big Apple, against New York Red Bulls on Saturday night. If they force their way into the top nine, it really would be something special.

From there, they will have as good a shot as anyone at MLS glory. Let’s hope America stays watching.

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