It’s happening. After much anticipation, Lionel Messi will come to Chester. Two penalty kick shootouts and a late stoppage-time winner from Chris Donovan have put the Union into the Leagues Cup semifinals against Inter Miami, a team the Union handled easily 4-1 on June 24th.
It’s safe to say a lot has changed since then.
Messi, 7-time Ballon d’Or winner, 4-time UEFA Champions League winner, most recently, World Cup winner, and arguably the greatest player of this generation, joined Inter Miami in mid-July and made his debut in Leagues Cup July 21st against Cruz Azul, breaking the internet with his stoppage-time free kick in the 2-1 win. Now joined by former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, Messi is surrounded by proven winners who’ve won more trophies than imaginable, enough to need someone else’s fingers and toes to count them all.
The real transformation began prior to Messi’s announcement.The addition of Argentine coach Tata Martino has been the major boost for the club often overlooked. Martino, with his own impressive winning resume, replaced Phil Neville, longtime teammate and friend of part-owner David Beckham. Neville left the club following a run that included 10 losses in 15 games, ending his two-year tenure with the lone highlight an early playoff exit in 2021. Miami currently sits in last place in the Eastern Conference, twelve points out of D.C. United.
The addition of Martino, 2019 Gold Cup winner with Mexico, 2018 MLS Cup winner with Atlanta United, and South America Coach of the Year in 2007, among his notable accomplishments, has shifted the style of Miami’s play in a way that’s more conducive to the talent within the club and the overall vision moving forward. “If you look at what Miami was able to do this transfer window,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game against Queretaro, “and it starts with the coach, by the way, to bring him in, all the dominoes fall into places after that. He’s an incredible coach.”
But Curtin feels the reach goes even beyond Messi and Martino. “If you take Messi, the greatest player in the world out of the window, and you look at what’s come in, the money and the investment they’ve made on players that aren’t household names yet they’re spending, 6,7,8,9 million, it’s a roster that for a coach is difficult to prepare for.”
Miami has been transformed on the field. They’ve come a long way from the team that needed penalties to beat USL Championship side Miami FC in the U.S. Open Cup Third Round, that’s after scoring minutes from the end of extra-time to push to penalties. Despite earning a 0-0 draw in Miami in March, six weeks ago, against the Union, they looked defeated from start to finish. They no longer look defeated but rejuvenated, and have since taken down Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, and now Charlotte, all teams ahead of them in the Supporters’ Shield Standings.
“You can see how Jordi Alba and Busquets, it’s almost like pick-up soccer for them with Messi,” Curtin said. “They know when to give him the ball, where to give him the ball, and it’s fun to watch.”
With a number of creative Miami players on the ball, Curtin anticipates his team will be on the defensive, which he doesn’t mind. “They do pin you in, and then you can counter attack.” The Union rarely win the possession battle, opting instead to catch teams with sloppy passes in the defensive third or out of position in transitions, which may be even better suited for the new Miami lineup. “We’re going to obviously try to limit their chances as best we can, but we have to be ruthless on the counter attack.”
Messi scored again in Miami’s 4-0 quarterfinal over Charlotte FC. He now has 8 goals in 5 Leagues Cup games, including braces against Atlanta, Orlando, and Dallas, his second another sublime free kick over the wall into the top corner, this time in the 85th minute to tie the game at 4-4 and send it to penalties.
“It’s amazing,” Curtin said. “It’s perfect for the league and the way Messi has lived up and actually almost done even more than what superstars do. Jordan, Messi, whoever it is, these are guys that have pressure on them every second of every day, and they still produce every time.”
With special interest around the league and limitless financial potential, the Messi train has garnered tremendous amount of interest off the field. Though official numbers have not been released, Miami owner Jorge Mas recently stated Messi has doubled Apple’s MLS Season Pass subscription memberships, a cut of which had been announced upon the player’s signing he will receive. Messi has 482 million Instagram followers, and already his appearance in the vicinity of businesses, notably Publix, and any number of brands captured in the background have created unprecedented benefits. I’m not suggesting he’ll stop in the Larimer for a couple of pre-game suds but it wouldn’t hurt.
Compared to the Union’s thriftiness, or fiscal responsibility if you prefer, Miami’s splash this summer has certainly raised the concerns for MLS’s limited cap and roster restrictions that could keep Miami’s opponents failing to keep pace. The Union’s recent signing of Israeli striker Tai Beribo, reported to be in the $1.5 million range, is the fourth-highest signing in club history and the third big money target in three years. The Union made a record transfer last January, acquiring Michael Uhre from Brøndby for $2.8 million. Uhre is goalless in Leagues Cup and hasn’t seen the back of the net since a 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy July 7th. The Union’s top scorer, Daniel Gazdag, signed in the summer of 2021 for $1.8 million, has been ruled out with a knee injury, though damage appears minimal. The Messi-Busquets-Alba trio alone, all free transfers, value at a combined €45 million on Trasfermarket, nearly equal the Union’s entire squad. On top of that, Miami was able to maximize the U-22 route by adding Diego Gómez from Libertad, Facundo Farías from Cólonde Santa Fe, and Tomas Aviles from Racing Club, building a more complete and younger squad with stylistic similarities to Messi.
For the Union players, the opportunity to play against Messi brings some level of excitement, too. How could it not? “It’s pretty surreal,” said Donovan, the Union’s late-game hero, who scored the winner in the 11th minute to put the Union into the semifinals, “to score one where you know that extra time is just about to expire and Messi is on the other end of it.”
“We have a pretty good home unbeaten streak,” Kai Wagner said, “we just want to continue it, it doesn’t matter who’s coming.” Wagner, who served the assist on Donovan’s winner, will likely see a lot of Messi down his side, cutting across in front of him toward goal or looking for passes between him and the central defenders. But for the Union left back, it’s going to be business as usual. “It’s a great thing for everybody to play Messi, but we just have to play our style.”
Wagner, who’s role has been more of a wingback in recent games out of the 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 system, will need a strong relationship with Leon Flach or Jesus Bueno on his side as well as the range of Jose Martinez, who along with Wagner, was one of a number of Union players with escalating minutes grinding at the end of Friday night’s game.
“You saw it today that a lot of people were really tired,” he said. “I felt it, too, in the first half. You just have to get over a point where you get your second air.” Wagner, Andre Blake, and Jack Elliott have played every second of the competition (450), with the now injured Julian Carranza (425), Jakob Glesnes and Martinez (414) a handful of minutes behind. “Right now it’s about getting treatment, eating right, sleeping right, just try to do everything simple.”
Joaquin Torres, a fellow Argentine, came off the bench and provided a much needed boost late in the game, orchestrating the game-winning goal with a perfect through ball behind the defense for Wagner. “It’s a dream,” he said about playing Messi, “being that he’s one of my idols as a kid and being an opportunity to share the field and play against him, it’s going to be awesome.”
Jesus Bueno, who scored the Union’s opener, his first of the season, has been one of the biggest surprises of the Leagues Cup, filling in for injured captain Alejandro Bedoya and Flach. He’s also looking forward to the matchup of his South American counterpart. “it’s motivation,” he said. “To me, he’s the best player in the world. But it’s a game, it’s soccer, and we’re going for the win.”
It is just a game of soccer, one in which the Union may not be even favored to win despite their impeccable home form but should. They’re one of the best teams in the league and will play like one on the big stage. But it’s also a game played with emotion, and for many players, coaches, and fans, Tuesday night presents a rare opportunity to experience greatness and should be one of the more memorable nights ever in Subaru Park. The Leagues Cup battles may be the end of our nerves and our bank accounts, but they haven’t lacked drama. For one night, at leastsome of us will all be able to say we were there when Messi came to Chester.