No Messi, no spark, as Orlando and Miami rivalry falls flat

ORLANDO, Fl. — The 0-0 draw between Orlando City and Inter Miami in MLS on Wednesday night exposed some harsh realities for both teams, but it also shone a spotlight on a supposed rivalry that has never really caught fire.

The match may have been scheduled during MLS’ marketable “Rivalry Week” — a matchday used to pit the league’s fiercest rivals against each other — but, with Lionel Messi sitting out due to injury, the forced narrative seemed to only convince one of Florida’s two sides.

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Orlando welcomed Miami with a slate of jokes at the Herons’ expense. “The Broward County Bandwagons are here” echoed throughout the stadium before the team came out to train on the pitch. Orlando City’s lion mascot Kingston then flaunted a sign that read: “GOAT Missing. If found, please return 2 Argentina” and was later shown tearing apart some pink flamingo floaties (the closest they could get to a heron, I guess.) The jumbotron displayed a slideshow of fans at the stadium wearing Argentina jerseys to the song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” while superimposing a tear emoji on all the faces.

The mocking continued in the countdown to kickoff. Orlando opted to single out Miami supporters on the jumbotron with taunting phrases underneath. “Still in denial that a certain forward will return to Barcelona” was placed under a fan wearing Messi’s old Barcelona shirt, before it switched to “Hasn’t figured out that Beckham doesn’t play for the team.” Then a “Inter Miami fan since June, Kansas City Chiefs fan since February (probably)” was displaying over some of those wearing the Herons’ pink kit.

Orlando City’s squad also tried to channel the same energy during their prematch interviews with ESPN.

“It’s always a Clasico against Miami, but so much more now due to the attention they’ve recently received,” head coach Oscar Pareja said. “Undoubtedly the rivalry is a special date.”

Defender Robin Jansson added: “It’s the closest thing we have to a rivalry, and there have been some tight matchups against them. But, yes, it’s a rivalry.”

But while the prematch talk and stadium hijinks was designed to set a mood, the Orlando fans didn’t bring the intensity that a proper derby game contains. They tried to boo the Miami players as they made their way onto the pitch but their efforts were quickly drowned out by cheers and there was no tifo, no chants, or any attempt at an organized effort to make the Herons feel the pressure of being at an away game.

Instead, the usual “Vamos Orlando, esta noche tenemos que ganar” [Come on Orlando, tonight we have to win] song was paired with instrumentals which could be heard at random points throughout the game. Hardly the most imposing atmosphere.

Even without Messi in attendance, Miami’s fans held their own and cheered for their team from a remote corner of the stadium, waving flags and singing throughout. On and off the field, Miami’s players also remain unbothered by any vague attempts at intimidation.

“They are technically our rival,” Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said. “I mean they are the other MLS team in Florida. They are purple, and we are pink. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it … I know there are some Clasicos where you can see the other stadium from your own. Granted they are central Florida and we’re south Florida. For the new guys, it’s about recognizing that when going against our rival, or really any team, we need to play to win.”

In the end, neither team could find a spark as Luis Suárez and Robert Taylor missed good chances early on and Callender proved key as he made three saves for Miami to hold off pressure from Orlando and secure its first clean sheet since March 2 (coincidentally in a 5-0 win over Orlando at Chase Stadium.)

“We defended well, saw good circulation, and played the ball well. When we couldn’t pressure up top, the three midfielders and two wingers pushed. Defensively though, we were solid and that was what most stands out because we had been conceding a lot,” coach Gerardo Martino, who had not made a positive comment on Miami’s backline in weeks, said afterwards.

Miami has needed to up its defensive efforts in recent games, too often relying on Messi to bail it out, and it was always going to be tough task given it has not defeated the Lions in MLS play in Orlando.

It cleared missed Messi up front as its five-match winning streak came to an end — only the second time this season that the Herons went scoreless — but did enough to claim a point and keep top spot in the Eastern Conference for now.

Perhaps it was a good thing Messi wasn’t there; he’s used to playing in the most intense rivalries in the world: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid and Argentina vs. Brazil. The Miami-Orlando version fell wildly short as fabricated narratives can only do so much. With a four-year history in MLS, the Herons are writing their own story and it does not appear to include tension against Orlando.