Messi Magic to Major League Soccer: Lionel makes his MLS debut with a late-game goal


There were thousands of Lionel Messi jerseys in the stands at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. The capacity crowd got what it came for, as Inter Miami defeated the host Red Bulls, 2-0.

They just had to wait a little longer for the legendary Argentine midfielder.

Messi was not in the starting lineup and did not warm up on Saturday night. When he made his Major League Soccer debut in the 60th minute, the ovation ricocheted around the stadium.

Messi scored an insurance goal in the 89th minute, running onto a loose ball in the box and tapping it in. He had earned a free kick and sent it into the Red Bulls’ defensive wall a minute earlier.


Messi waved to the crowd as he slowly walked off the field after the match, surrounded by cameras.

“It’s Messi. That’s the answer. Done deal. You can add an exclamation point or two,” said 16-year-old Jake Carroll, a rising junior center back at Waldwick High School. “His feet just move like God. He wears out the defenders. You never know what he’s going to do. He’s one of a kind.”


Quick break

Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino had hinted that Messi and some of the other starters might need a break. Messi has 10 goals and six assists *in six matches since transferring to Miami on July 21.

“Leo and many other players are reaching an important physical limit and from this point forward, we will have to evaluate how we approach these next three games,” Martino said on Wednesday.



Messi, 36, has played every minute of Miami’s last six games, including the Leagues Cup final on Aug. 19 and the U.S. Open Cup semifinal on Aug. 23 – both of which went to penalty kicks. Inter Miami flew straight from the USOC semi in Cincinnati to New Jersey. Hundreds of fans have waited hours behind barricades outside the W Hoboken on the waterfront, where the team is staying.


Ticket prices on the secondary market soared as high as $18,584 by Monday. Pink replica jerseys were on sale in the stadium parking lots for $50, and bucket hats with Messi’s photo on top were $20, according to vendor Alexander Garcia, an Ecuadoran immigrant who was making sales and change in multiple languages.


“Whether or not he was here or not here, we would be here. It’s a bonus,” said Dave Reichers, a Red Bulls season-ticket holder from Totowa. “It’ll be good to have Messi involved with the league long term. Will it make a difference? I don’t know.”

Superstars, packed stadium ‘a bonus’

The Empire Supporters’ Club, the original fan group for the MetroStars – and now the Red Bulls – had spread the word that anyone wearing other teams’ gear was not permitted in its sections behind the goal. Mostly dressed in red, they stood, chanted, waved flags and pounded drums from the opening kickoff.


Several Red Bulls fans likened Messi to Red Bulls striker Tom Barlow, who subbed in at halftime.

Reicher’s shirt had a photo of Barlow, a greater than sign, and a photo of a weepy Messi. Joe Runkle of Clark’s red T-shirt said “Here to see the GOAT,” aka the greatest of all time, on the front, but instead of making reference to Messi, the back read, “Tom Barlow.”


A cry of “We want Messi” rose up from the other side of the arena, which seemed to be filled close to its 25,219 capacity at kickoff. This was the Red Bulls’ first MLS sellout since July 17, 2022, against New York City FC. They also sold out Red Bull Arena when FC Barcelona visited for a friendly on July 30, 2022.

Many of the fans wore the pink or black of Inter Miami, red-and-blue vertical stripes of FC Barcelona, or Argentina’s sky blue and white.

“[The atmosphere] has definitely changed,” said Heather Cooperstein of Piscataway, a ESC member since MLS launched in 1996. “We all want to see him play, but we don’t want him to play the way he usually plays, because we want our team to win, always. It’s a little different with all the pink jerseys around. … I hope more fans come out of this. More soccer fans in this area are never a bad thing.”


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