Messi scores twice more as Inter Miami beats Atlanta in Leagues Cup

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) waves as he leaves the game during the second half of a Leagues Cup soccer match against Atlanta United, Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas has one lasting memory from Lionel Messi’s debut: the image of Messi running to embrace his family after delivering the game-winning free kick and cementing a new era for the club and Major League Soccer.

“That was for the fans. This community is hungry,” Mas said.

Messi’s follow-up performance Tuesday night against Atlanta United in the Leagues Cup showed the impact that one player — the right player — can have on an entire club.

Messi scored twice and had an assist in his first start for Miami, bringing his total to three goals in two games. Inter Miami had a 3-0 lead by halftime, the first such lead in club history.

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“There’s going to be a before and after Messi in football for this country,” Mas said.

Miami went on to win 4-0. Messi exited in the 78th minute to a standing ovation, with many in the crowd wearing his No. 10 jersey. Many also headed for the exits themselves once Messi was on the bench.

“With the type of player that he is, it’s justified that this happens,” Miami coach Tata Martino said. “I would have preferred that the public stayed and pay tribute to the entire team, but I can also understand it.”

Miami swept its group and moved on to the round of 32 in the Leagues Cup, in which it will host a to-be-determined opponent.

In the eighth minute, Messi took a pass from his longtime Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets, surged forward and sent a strike off the right post before tapping in his own rebound. Then, in the 22nd minute, Messi put Miami ahead 2-0 off a pass from Robert Taylor.

“Since those two have gotten here, the spirit has changed,” Miami’s DeAndre Yedlin said, referring to Messi and Busquets. “Obviously, guys are really excited. But I think just their presence gives everybody more confidence. And I think also the teams that we’re playing against now have a bit of fear in their eyes. When those two are on the field, you know you’re in for a tough game.”

Messi came off the bench in the 54th minute Friday night in Miami’s first Leagues Cup match against Mexican club Cruz Azul. And he provided a moment fans had hoped for when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and World Cup champion for Argentina decided to take his talents to MLS. Messi converted the game-winning free kick in stoppage time in front of a crowd estimated at 21,000.

Yedlin had placed the skipper’s armband on Messi when he checked in on Friday, but Messi entered Tuesday’s match wearing the armband just below his right shoulder.

“He’s my teammate now. He’s our teammate,” Yedlin said. “He’s part of this team and he wants to win like everybody else. And he’s been a joy to be around, obviously not just on the field. He’s obviously an amazing talent but off the field he really helps a lot of the younger guys, even older guys like myself.”

Brazilian midfielder Gregore had been the club’s captain before suffering a foot injury in March.

With Messi rightly commanding much of the attention from Atlanta’s defenders, opportunities opened for other Miami players. Taylor scored in the 44th minute, then made it 4-0 in the 53rd after being set up by Messi.

“There’s times when the coach prepares a certain game in a certain way, but these two players are so good at what they do that they create space,” Martino said about Messi and Busquets.

Goalkeeper Drake Callender preserved the shutout when he stopped a penalty shot by Thiago Almada in the 86th minute.

“There are things that of course after review of the game that we can do way better,” Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think we also had some chances to score. … We couldn’t capitalize.”

Messi had entered holding hands with the son of hip-hop artist DJ Khaled.

A fan got onto the field as Messi was exiting. The fan sprinted all the way toward Miami’s bench where Messi stood before Martino grabbed the attention of security. The fan was then escorted off the field.

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