Inter Miami can’t keep relying on Messi or conceding first

Lionel Messi continuously proves himself to be the most integral part of MLS leaders Inter Miami‘s success, even when he doesn’t score or get an assist. In the 3-2 comeback victory over CF Montréal on Saturday night, the Argentina forward once again inspired his teammates offensively, but the Herons are slipping into an uncomfortable pattern of play.

Recently, all Miami’s matches have played out in similar fashion: the backline struggles and concedes before Messi inspires the offense to turn the score around and secure the victory.

This time, it was former Inter Miami player Bryce Duke who took advantage of some weak defending to give Montréal a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute — the seventh-consecutive time that Miami has conceded the first goal this season. That streak started on April 6 against the Colorado Rapids and extends to Major League Soccer and Concacaf Champions Cup games against CF Monterrey, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution, Nashville SC, Sporting Kansas City, and now Montréal.

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In the 32nd minute, Jules-Anthony Vilsaint doubled the score to suggest it would be a tough comeback this time around, but in all the MLS matches where it has gone behind, Miami eventually recovered with Messi leading the charge alongside Luis Suárez. And, on Saturday, it was no different.

Messi quietly helped to pave the way back — winning a free kick in a prime position for Matias Rojas‘ to strike home the set piece, before Suarez netted the equaliser from a corner four minutes later, then was an integral part of the play for Benjamin Cremaschi‘s winner on 59 minutes.

It exposed a striking difference from Miami’s first confrontation against the Canadian side on March 10, when they fell 3-2 as Messi watched from the sidelines while he nursed a hamstring injury. And the Herons experienced something similar against the Red Bulls this season: losing 4-0 without Messi in late March before winning 6-2 over the same opponent just weeks later with the star striker contributing five assists and one goal.

Messi’s impact is clear. Since he made his debut, in all competitions the team is 2-4-6 (WDL) when he does not play and 15-7-3 when he does.

But the defensive issues can’t continue and Miami must quickly learn how to cope without their star man if winning Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup remains an objective. Gerardo Martino’s side may boast an astonishing 35 goals scored, largely due to Messi and Suarez, but it has conceded a shocking 20.

“Yes, it gives us tranquillity to count with players like that on the attack,” defender Franco Negri said afterwards, when asked if having Messi on the team calms nerves. “But we also have to have the responsibility to be better at the back … luckily we have found that amount of goals and won.”

Soon, Negri and his teammates will no longer be able to count on Messi to get those goals back, as the famous No. 10 will head off to lead heavy favorites Argentina at the 2024 Copa America from June 20 to July 14.

La Albiceleste has won the tournament 15 times, the joint-record holder with Uruguay, and should it make it all the way to the final this time around, as expected, Miami would be without Messi for a month. Even if the reigning champions only reach the semifinals, Argentina would still have the third-place playoff on July 13, which would see Messi miss five MLS games: Philadelphia Union (June 15), Columbus Crew (June 19), Nashville SC (June 29), Charlotte FC (July 3), and FC Cincinnati (July 6).

But it could be even worse for Miami if the 36-year-old accepts the invitation from head coach Javier Mascherano to become one of three senior players allowed on Argentina’s Under-23 team for the Olympics from July 24 to August 10. That would see him miss the majority of the 2024 Leagues Cup tournament.

“We have made an invitation to Leo to join us at the Olympic Games and we have agreed to talk to him again,” Mascherano said about Messi’s involvement earlier this month. “We know it’s not an easy situation for him … We will give him the time he needs.”

Two months without Messi leaves Martino’s team vulnerable in all competitions. For now, the coach revealed he is just looking to win as many games as possible and maintain top spot in the Eastern Conference before his star player departs. But what comes next?

Miami’s current offensive options include pairing Campana with Suarez, which proved ineffective in the 4-0 loss to the Red Bulls, or Suarez could play alongside Robert Taylor and Julian Gressel, as he did in the 1-1 draw against New York City FC. But Suarez is 37 years old and may not have the stamina to shoulder the creative burden himself. The 23-year-old Campana may need to step up and lead the attack, as he did in the first half against the Colorado Rapids, though that game saw him create no chances before exiting the pitch with no goals or assists on 42 minutes.

Of course there is no magical substitution for Messi. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner proves time and again why many regard him as one of the game’s best, but he can’t always be there to save the day. Football is not an individual sport and the weeks without Messi will prove to be incredibly tough if Miami can’t sort out its defensive issues.