Lionel Messi was the star of the show at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. The New York Red Bulls felt like visitors in their own home as they played Inter Miami CF.
The sold-out crowd of 26,276, a record attendance for an RBNY match, was mostly for him.

The World Cup winner entered the match early in the second half and scored the game-sealing goal.

Inter Miami won, 2-0, and is now out of last place in the Eastern Conference.

There will be more to say about the Lionel Andrés Messi antics of the day. But for now, the game needs dissecting.

Head coach Troy Lesesne is hopeful the night will have some positive effects going forward. The first-year MLS head coach hopes some of the Messi Mania crowd returns to Harrison after seeing what the team and the league have to offer.

“I’d love to use the opportunity to say that anyone that was new to the stadium tonight hopefully got to have a great experience, and I hope that they come back, and they also got to see so many young players from our club get opportunities,” said Lesesne.

“I hope they come back and support the young players. For the supporters who have been with us the entire year that were with us last week, I loved the way they tried to combat the noise of the night, the Messi chant. It’s tough to combat, but our supporters were right there with us, pushing us, and we are going to need them to push us this final stretch of the season.”

However, the performance the Red Bulls put out was nothing exciting or appealing enough for their own fans. Let alone trendchasers who paid hundreds to see one opposing player who wasn’t even in the starting XI.

New York entered Saturday with a nearly identical lineup to last week vs. D.C. United. The only change was replacing Tom Barlow with Frankie Amaya. Kyle Duncan had to serve a one-game suspension due to yellow card accumulation. Dante Vanzeir, after his injury last week, was held off the lineup as well.

The opposing lineup was fairly standard. Except Lionel Messi, after playing 120 minutes in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals on Wednesday, was on the bench. That meant for the first 45 minutes, the crowd periodically erupted into chants. “We Want Messi” overshadowed the packed South Ward at times.

On the field, New York struggled to look like a cohesive unit. The first real chance of the game came in the 7th minute. Miami’s Diego Gómez slid to shoot a long pass in front of Carlos Coronel, but the ball went wide right. The flag went up anyway; however, it was a sign of things to come. A yellow card to RBNY winger Cameron Harper in the 10th minute hampered the dual nationals play for the rest of the night. With the team not making headway up top, his usual aggressive defending style was a risk of a second yellow. He never got into the match from there.

New York’s first real chance of the game came in the 35th minute. Luquinhas played the ball wide left to a running Dru Yearwood. The midfielder crossed the ball in and found Omir Fernandez right in front of the net.

IMCF keeper Drake Callender looked out of position when the ball reached Fernandez. But the left-footed contact on the ball was scuffed, and the shot went wide right.

“It’s exactly how 2023 has gone for the New York Red Bulls,” Taylor Twellman said during the replay of the play.

Two minutes later, Miami scored the first goal. Jordi Alba took a free kick after a foul by Andrés Reyes, and the ball was punched out by Carlos Coronel. Robert Taylor played the ball wide to Noah Allen. The teenage defender made a pass to Diego Gómez, who put on a touch and slotted the ball inside the far post with a left-foot shot from about 14 yards. It was Gomez’s first MLS goal with Miami since joining the team last month.

The fans cheered for a Miami goal, even though it might have hurt their chances of seeing Leo come in. That’s why when New York had a chance to equalize, a few of them were happy. In the 42nd minute, Inter Miami’s David Ruiz was called for a handball in the box. RBNY went to the spot, but a VAR check said the ball went off the player’s shoulder. New York went into the breakdown 1-0.

After the break, Lesesne made two swaps. Tom Barlow came in for Elias Manoel, and Peter Stroud for Dru Yearwood. Barlow, with the eyes of the world on him, played exactly how fans have come to expect. In the 57th minute, Daniel Edelman made a chip cross into the box and found the strike alone behind the line. He was onside and had called for the ball. With only Callender to beat, Barlow came down with the ball using his left foot. He shot low, right at Callender, and fell on the rear as the ball came back into play.

A second swap up top saw Cory Burke replace Frankie Amaya in the 67th. Two strikers who have been inconsistent were playing against a backline that defaulted to a 6 man formation. New York did add a third striker as Columbian Jorge Cabezas made his New York Red Bulls debut. In the 14 minutes he played, he recorded no shots.

New York ended the game with 13 shots, with four being on target. The Barlow attempt might have been their best of the whole game.

The game is shown in Times Square, New York City.

And then the star of the night arrived. When he went over to the north corner to begin warming up, the place got loud. When he waved to a group of fans in the stands, they screamed. The rest of the arena screamed, thinking something was happening.

Finally, in the 58th minute, Lionel Messi made his way to the fourth official. Two minutes later, in the 60th minute, Messi made his Major League Soccer debut. He replaced Leonardo Campana.

The stacked triple sub also included Sergio Busquets and DeAndre Yedlin.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Peter Stroud said after the game.

“(He) just won a World Cup, I think, like six or seven months ago. He’s playing in our league. And it’s amazing to see him out at Red Bull Arena. It’s kinda like just a surreal moment, I think, obviously, to play against probably the best player ever to play the game.”

Messi’s first pass in Major League Soccer was then intercepted by RBNY center-back Andrés Reyes. Joking aside, a few moments during the 30 minutes Messi played stand out.

Right after, a 63rd-minute corner kick was hit out of the box but found Frankie Amaya about 30 yards out.

He shot long and forced a dive from Callender, but the ball went wide of the left post.

Midfielder Peter Stroud got the ball off a pass from Reyes and, while trying to start a run, slipped over it and to the ground.

Before a Miami player could jump on him, he recovered and quickly passed off.

“Just thinking too fast. But I kept the ball, but yeah, just thinking too fast,” Stroud said with a laugh after the game.

But Miami’s second goal in the 89th minute is what will be talked about for a while to come. A long pass by Busquets went to Jordi Alba on the left side of the box. He jumped and lifted his right foot to put the ball back in the middle toward Messi. The Argentinian played against two RBNY defenders, and Edelman was coming in from behind. Looking towards goal, Lionel Messi made an incredible pass to the right to Miami homegrown Benjamin Cremaschi. The young player passed back into the middle to Messi, who tapped in the ball with Carlos Coronel completely out of place.

You cannot fault Coronel for that goal. I have trouble faulting the defense for not seeing the pass lane. Almost no other player could make that sort of pass to Cremaschi.

Red Bull Arena erupted for Messi’s first official Major League Soccer goal. All of his previous goals with Miami had come during the Leagues Cup, making this one especially historic. In a way, the fans who shelled out the money got what they wanted.

That doesn’t help the New York Red Bulls fans who attended and watched. Who might as well have been second-class citizens in their own park? But that might be the norm going forward wherever Inter Messi goes.

The New York Red Bulls have two road games against rivals next week. A trip to Foxboro to play the New England Revolution, still currently without their head coach, awaits on Wednesday. On Saturday, the team heads to Chester to play the Philadelphia Union. The team’s last away trip there was the penalty kick shootout loss in the Leagues Cup Round of 16.

The next home match for the team will be on Wednesday, September 20, against Austin FC.

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