Lionel Messi came off the bench and scored as Inter Miami began their push for the Major League Soccer playoffs with a 2-0 win at New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
After a week in which Miami won the Leagues Cup and reached the final of the US Open Cup, Messi was left on the bench by coach Gerard “Tata” Martino but came into the game on the hour mark.
The Argentine World Cup winner had limited involvement after entering with former Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets but made his mark on his regular season debut with an 89th-minute goal.
Jordi Alba acrobatically hooked the ball into the box to Messi who twisted and turned then slipped a sublime pass with the outside of his foot to Benjamin Cremaschi whose low first-time cross was tapped in by the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner.
Messi has now scored 11 goals in nine appearances in all competitions since joining Inter Miami.
“He’s unbelievable, every day it’s something new, on and off the field,” said Miami’s 19-year-old defender Noah Allen.
“He’s an amazing person to play with and I am so blessed to play with him.”
Martino had indicated that several of his players needed a break after an intense run of eight games within a month and stuck to his word with his team selection, to the disappointment of the capacity crowd at Red Bull Arena.
There were chants of ‘We want Messi’ at regular stages throughout the game which was also shown on a giant screen in Times Square.
A makeshift Miami had taken the lead in the 37th minute when Noah Allen played in a cross from the left and Paraguayan Diego Gomez was given time to turn and then slot home a left-foot effort.
Miami keeper Drake Callender had to make a series of saves to keep his side in the lead but with Red Bull pressure mounting, Martino opted to bring on his star man and the momentum of the game inevitably shifted.
The win lifts Miami off the bottom of the Eastern Conference and reduces the gap to the last playoff sport to 11 points with 11 games remaining.
Martino defended his decision to start his 36-year-old compatriot on the bench despite the hopes of the crowd.
“I understand the desire of the people who want him to play, this will happen everywhere we go,” he said.
“But as the coach, I cannot be guided by those fans’ desires. My job is to make sure Leo takes care of himself,” he said.
– Cincy bounce back –
Eastern Conference leaders Cincinnati bounced back from their US Open Cup last-four loss to Miami on Wednesday with a 3-0 victory over New York City.
Aaron Boupendza nodded the Ohio side ahead in the 6th minute and Junior Moreno doubled the lead in the 52nd minute with a side-foot finish at the end of a swift counter.
A 59th minute header from Nick Hagglund wrapped up the win for Cincinnati who remain 11 points clear of second-placed Philadelphia.
Philly enjoyed a 3-1 win at Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United with all their goals coming in the first half through Mikael Uhre, Jack McGlynn and a penalty from Hungarian international Daniel Gazdag.
The New England Revolution, third in the East, fell to a 1-0 loss at Montreal with George Campbell grabbing the 86th-minute winner.
Champions Los Angeles FC suffered a surprise 2-1 loss at Charlotte with former Burnley midfielders Ashley Westwood and Scott Arfield on target for the North Carolina side.
Westwood opened the scoring with a clever finish at the near post in the 29th minute before Mario Gonzalez leveled for LAFC in the 67th only for Arfield, a recent signing from Scotland’s Rangers, to grab the 75th-minute winner.
It was a day of surprises in the Western Conference where leaders St.Louis City fell to a 2-1 defeat to Orlando City with Facundo Torres settling the encounter with a stoppage-time penalty after Anthony Markanich handled in the box.
Third-placed Real Salt Lake were also upset with Houston Dynamo marching into Utah and leaving with a 3-0 win.
Dallas left it late to win their Texas derby with Austin 1-0 with Nkosi Tafari scoring with a glancing header in the seventh minute of stoppage time.