FRISCO, Texas — For the first time since Lionel Messi arrived at Inter Miami, the world champion’s team was on the ropes. FC Dallas took a 3-1 lead just after the hour mark of the teams’ Leagues Cup round-of-16 contest at Toyota Stadium, Messi’s first away match since joining the MLS outfit, played in the sweltering summer Texas heat.
But Messi did what he always seems to do: He found a way to help his team grind out a win. Trailing by a pair of goals in the 80th minute, Messi put in a free kick headed in for an FC Dallas own goal and then delivered one of his trademark direct free kicks into the top corner of FCD goalkeeper Maarten Paes‘ net to tie the match 4-4 and send it into a penalty shootout.
At the spot, Messi converted the first penalty, the first of five successful kicks for Inter Miami as the team won the shootout and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Leagues Cup.
“We have the best player in the world. That can’t be ignored. When we have our moments, the team is lethal,” Inter Miami manager Tata Martino said after the match. Yet, he also noted the team is “still far from being a team you can trust.”
Where would Inter Miami be without Messi? For Martino, it’s not all that instructive of a thought exercise.
“This question always gets asked in the places where he is. Someone can bet on what Barcelona would’ve looked like without Messi, what the Argentina national team would look like without Messi or anywhere he’s been,” Martino said. “Fortunately, we have him, and today he once again showed he’s a tremendously important player.
“The majority of times there’s a free kick in this area, and I think only with him do you get the feeling that it’s going to be a goal. A free kick usually is something where you think it won’t be a goal 90% of the time, but when he has it, it’s the opposite. You think it won’t be a goal 10% of the time, but the rest it will be.”
Martino’s counterpart Sunday, FC Dallas manager Nico Estévez, went one step further.
“It’s obvious that for him a free kick around there is like a PK for another player. That’s it,” Estévez said. “I think there’s not much to say. Everyone can see it, and he’s very consistent. You just have to pray the ball goes out of bounds or he falls in the run-up to kick the ball.”
While Messi made no stumbles and few errors Sunday night, the same can’t be said of many of his Inter Miami teammates. FCD headed into the locker room with a 2-1 lead after goals from Facundo Quignon and Bernard Kamungo.
FCD extended that lead to 3-1 in the 63rd minute when Alan Velasco’s free kick from the left wing bounced through traffic and into the Inter Miami net. And while Inter pulled back a goal shortly after, it again fell victim to its own sloppy play as forward Robert Taylor put the ball into his own net in the 68th minute.
“When someone tries to design a team, there are a lot of things that make you think you’re on the right path and can transform it into a great team,” Martino said. “Obviously in any great team, you can’t lack character. I think we showed it today. We were full of errors, we weren’t able to circulate the ball well, mostly in the first hour of the game, but the team also showed character, which gave us the chance to get through.”
It certainly wouldn’t have happened without Messi and might not have happened without Benjamin Cremaschi, an 18-year-old midfielder who scored a minute after coming on and also converted the fifth and final penalty kick.
“All the guys congratulated me and we all were happy we were able to come back and win on penalties,” he said. “It’s a unique moment, a beautiful one for the club, but we know we’ve got to keep growing. There will be games that are going to be hard, but we know we can fight until the last minute.”
That was required Sunday night from a Miami team still coming together and still leaning on the best player in the world to get it out of any jam. For now, it’s no problem. Messi has done just that, and Inter Miami is into the quarterfinal.