What a match. What a finish. And what a run for Lionel Messi and Inter Miami.
Inter Miami outdueled Nashville SC in a penalty kick shootout 10-9 to settle a 1-1 tie in the Leagues Cup final on Saturday night in Nashville, Tennessee.
We’re just seven games into the Messi experience in Miami and MLS. And Messi has already helped Inter Miami win its first championship since joining the league in 2020.
Although this feels like what should happen when the world’s greatest soccer star joins what was an otherwise lowly MLS team before his arrival, this Leagues Cup final was fought to the very end.
Messi scored in the 23rd minute. Nashville’s Fafá Picault scored in the 57th minute. And both sides were inches away from winning it in the final minutes of regulation before needing 22 total penalty kicks to decide it.
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Still, Messi’s presence cannot be denied.
“We were able to put ourselves in position where we could have stole it,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said. “You’re looking at the greatest player on the planet possibly being the difference on what happened today.”
Messi – who scored 10 goals in his first tournament action with Inter Miami – won the Leagues Cup top scorer and best player awards.
Inter Miami’s Drake Callender won best goalkeeper of the tournament after blocking two kicks in the final minutes by reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar, and Nashville goalkeeper Elliot Panicco’s final penalty kick to end it.
And the celebration began.
Messi’s teammates hoisted him in the air as they celebrated on the pitch.
Inter Miami coach Tata Martino and his coaching staff settled for a group hug full of smiles and some tears on the bench.
And David Beckham hugged his wife, Victoria, and fellow Inter Miami co-owners Jorge and Jose Mas in the stands as their vision for Messi in Miami came to fruition.
“It was a tight game for both teams. Any team could have won it,” said Martino, who coached Messi before with FC Barcelona and Argentina. “I was very impressed with the win. We came together.”
Martino’s postgame press conference ended when Inter Miami players stormed the room to soak their coach in champagne.
“After this month, we’re champions. And it feels great,” Martino said.
Inter Miami earns $2 million and an automatic berth in the Round of 16 in the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup with its win.
Soccer fans won’t have to wait long to see Messi and Inter Miami return to action.
Messi could take the pitch again twice in the upcoming week.
Inter Miami is slated to play a U.S. Open cup match against Cincinnati on Wednesday and begins MLS regular season play again next Saturday (8/26) against the New York Red Bulls.
Martino said he’s going to be thinking about the upcoming match on the plane ride home.
“We’re happy for what happened. There’s not a long time to celebrate,” Martino said. “This one is in the past, and we’re dreaming about the match against Cincinnati on Wednesday.”
Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup title by downing Nashville SC in a shootout, 10-9. Messi scored a first-half goal for Miami.
Outside of Messi, no Inter Miami player played a bigger role than Callender in the Leagues Cup final.
Callender blocked two kicks in the final minutes by reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar, among five saves in the match, to keep the game tied at 1 in regulation.
Callender also made Inter Miami’s 11th and final penalty kick in the match, and added one more save, stopping Nashville goalkeeper Elliot Panicco’s final penalty kick to clinch the title.
“It’s a huge honor to play a role in making our first win in a final,” Callender said on Apple TV after the game. “It’s pretty surreal and emotional.”
Inter Miami and Nashville each had gut-wrenching misses in the final minutes that allowed this game to be decided by penalty kicks.
Inter Miami’s Leonard Campana missed two shots on goal after Panicco left the net to contest his first shot, which was too wide to the left side of the net.
As the ball rolled in front of the empty next, Campana slid and stretched his left foot onto the ball, hitting the left goal post.
Before Inter Miami’s near-miss, Nashville had two of its own.
Mukhtar, the reigning MLS MVP, was unable to convert on both of his late attempts. Callender deflected a high kick in the 90th minute, one minute after Mukhtar’s free kick following a yellow card in the 89th minute was contested.
“There’s no negatives in how we played tonight,” Nashville coach Gary Smith said. “Just real disappointment.”
Nashville’s Randall Leal missed the second penalty kick. Inter Miami’s Victor Ulloa missed the fifth and final kick to extend the game.
And after 11 penalty kicks by both sides, it was Inter Miami celebrating its first title of the Messi era after Panicco missed the final kick of the night.
The players who took PKs for Miami were: Messi, S. Busquets; L. Campana; K. Miller, V. Ulloa (miss), S. Kryvtsov, J. Alba, D. Gómez, D. Ruíz, D. Yedlin, D. Callender.
The players who took PKs for Nashville were: H. Mukhtar, R. Leal (miss), A. Godoy, W. Zimmerman, S. Surridge, S. Moore, D. Lovitz, L. MacNaughton, S. Davis, J. Shaffelburg, E. Panicco (miss).
MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar had a free kick and an opportunity to deliver a serious blow to Inter Miami.
But Mukhtar was unable to convert his kick just outside the box in the 84th minute.
Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender watched as the kick sailed to the right side outside of the net.
If the game remains tied at the end of regulation, it will be decided by penalty kicks.
Nashville almost found an opportunity to take the lead.
MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar led the charge toward the net and dropped a pass to Sam Surridge, but his shot was blocked by Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender in the 77th minute.
We’re still tied at 1 heading into the final 10 minutes.
Messi was inches away from his second goal in this game.
Messi found space to get a kick off with his left foot, but the ball ricocheted off the right goal post in the 71st minute.
Messi nearly had another brace, or two goals scored, during Leagues Cup play.
Messi missed another shot from outside the box earlier in the second half.
We’ve got a tie game, folks.
Nashville took advantage of a set piece from the corner, and has made this Leagues Cup final even more intriguing.
Fafá Picault’s kick hit off Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender and went into the net in the 57th minute.
Lionel Messi’s left boot has already made its mark in this Leagues Cup final.
Messi scored in the 23rd minute, and Inter Miami leads Nashville SC 1-0 at halftime.
Messi is up to 10 goals in seven games during his Inter Miami career.
Nashville trails for the first time at halftime during its Leagues Cup run.
Lionel Messi does it again.
Messi scored the first goal in the Leagues Cup final in the 23rd minute.
Messi had four defenders around him, and still found space for his left boot to perform its magic.
Messi is now up to 10 goals in seven games in his Inter Miami career.
The goal also is No. 37 in a final in Messi’s storied career.
∎ Robert Taylor misses Inter Miami’s first shot on goal in the match just before the 21st minute.
∎ Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman misses a header at the next in 17’ with good defense by Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender. Nashville missed its first two shots on goal.
∎ Messi was bumped by a Nashville player in the opening minutes and it was his longtime teammate Sergio Busquets, who came to his defense.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, a minority owner in Nashville SC, scored a goal on the pitch before the game. But his celebration is the news here.
Antetokounmpo celebrated by performing Cristiano Ronaldo’s “SIU” celebration near midfield after his kick hit the back of the net.
We’ll see if Antetokounmpo poked the bear with his antics during the game.
The game will not be broadcast on cable TV.
Here are a few game predictions from members of the USA TODAY Sports staff:
Alicia DelGallo: Messi gets a brace in the first half, Inter Miami wins 2-0.
Safid Deen: Messi and Inter Miami score early and often, 3-1.
Mike Brehm: Nashville wins 3-1.
Jace Evans: Miami has to lose at some point, right? Nashville wins 2-1.
Cydney Henderson: I am going to put my money on Messi and Inter Miami. 4-1!
The stars are once again out for Lionel Messi, and tonight’s Leagues Cup final between Inter Miami and Nashville SC.
NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is in Nashville’s ownership group, and was on the pitch before the game.
“This is amazing. This is an amazing atmosphere,” Antetokounmpo said.
U.S. Men’s National team alum Landon Donovan was also interviewed on the pitch by Apple TV.
“To see, in my opinion, the greatest player ever on our fields just blows my mind first of all,” Donovan said.
“I was not expecting him to come out of the gate and be so dominant so early, and make everyone around him better. That’s the real sign of a great leader, great captain, great player. He makes everyone else better. And it’s been really fun to watch.”
And actress Reese Witherspoon posed for a photo alongside Inter Miami co-owner and soccer legend David Beckham before the game.
Is Messi playing tonight? Here are the starting lineups:
Messi is in the starting lineup once again for Inter Miami, marking his sixth start in seven games.
Here’s the starting lineups for both teams:
Want to see Messi in the Leagues Cup final in Nashville?
It could cost a pretty penny, based on ticket sales prices skyrocketing for Inter Miami games since Messi’s arrival.
And the most expensive: Ticketmaster ($3,748), Vivid Seats ($2,299), StubHub ($1,260).
Yeah, that’s per ticket.
Messi has scored nine goals in six games, while Inter Miami has scored 21 goals during the Leagues Cup. All six games before tonight’s final were victories for Inter Miami.
Before Messi, Inter Miami scored 22 goals in 22 MLS games this season. With their 5-3-14 (W-D-L) record, Inter Miami sits at the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference.
“They’re only gonna get better,” Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said after the 4-1 loss to Inter Miami.
“Their ownership is going to spend like crazy and they’re going to make them the best team in the league, and they might already be one of the best teams in the league. So yeah, that’s coming and I don’t think anything is stopping that.”
It was supposed to be the toughest test yet for Lionel Messi and Inter Miami.
And they aced it with flying colors.
Josef Martinez scored three minutes into the match. Messi scored a long goal off his left foot in the 20th minute. Jordi Alba scored just before halftime. And David Ruiz, 19, scored in the 84th minute to lead Inter Miami to a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in their Leagues Cup semifinal match on Tuesday night.
How difficult was this challenge supposed to be for Miami? Philly lost just one match in their last 41 contests on their home pitch before their loss to Inter Miami.
Along with Messi, Inter Miami signed Messi’s former FC Barcelona teammates in Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. They signed Paraguayan international Diego Gómez. They added 20-year-old Argentine midfielder Facundo Farías and 19-year-old Argentine defender Tomás Avilés.
And with the influx of talent, Inter Miami hired Messi’s longtime coach Tata Martino, who coached him with Barcelona and Argentina.
The new additions have elevated Inter Miami’s play naturally.
“We are inspired, motivated and confident. But we are focused on doing everything the team needs to get better,” Martino said after the victory over Philadelphia.
“We are not confused because we’re in the final now. No, we’re focused. We want to make Inter a very competitive team. Even though we’re in the final, we have a long way to go. If we didn’t have this result, we’d be complaining. But we haven’t done everything yet. No team can put together a solid team in 30 days or so.”
Nashville SC upset Liga MX powerhouse CF Monterrey, 2-0, in the semifinals to reach Saturday night’s final.
Nashville has made the playoffs in each of its three seasons, reaching the MLS conference semifinals in 2020 and 2021.
Among Nashville standout players: Hany Mukhtar, the reigning league MVP, is having a sensational follow-up to his MVP campaign, currently leading MLS with 13 goals. Defender Walker Zimmerman is a two-time MLS defender of the year and a four-time MLS Best XI selection. Fellow defender Shaq Moore, and Zimmerman, were part of the United States’ 2022 World Cup team. Newly signed forward Sam Surridge scored the first goal in Nashville’s 2-0 win over Monterrey in the Leagues Cup semifinals.
Inter Miami and Nashville SC — as well as the winner of the third-place game between the Philadelphia Union and CF Monterrey — have earned automatic berths for 2024 into the Concacaf Champions Cup (formerly named the Concacaf Champions League).
However, the Leagues Cup winner will earn automatic qualification to the Round of 16 in the Concacaf Champions Cup.
Messi ‘enjoying the moment’ with Inter Miami
While moving to South Florida has been an adjustment, Messi said he’s happy with the decision he made to join the MLS franchise co-owned by David Beckham.
“I’m happy enjoying this new stage, and I’m enjoying the experience of living here in this country,” Messi said.
Messi, softspoken and introspective, said his Miami experience so far has been drastically different from previous stops in his illustrious career.
“I chose to come here. I wanted to come here. And it’s a decision we made with time. It wasn’t something we decided one day to the next. We are where we want to be. It’s a decision we made. That makes everything much easier and simpler,” Messi said.
“When I went to Paris, it wasn’t something I wanted. I didn’t want to leave Barcelona. In some ways, it was one day to the next. I had to adapt to somewhere completely different from where I lived all my life. But that’s totally different from my experience here.”
Messi has played most of his historic career on natural grass, creating some discussion on whether he would play on synthetic turf in some MLS stadiums.
Messi appeared open to the possibility to playing on turf.
“All of my lower leagues, I’ve always played on turf,” Messi said. “That was a long time ago and it’s been a long time since I played on synthetic turf. But I have no problem adapting to turf again.”
- Aug. 19: at Nashville SC (Leagues Cup final), 9 p.m. ET
- TBD (originally scheduled for Aug. 20): vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Aug. 23: at FC Cincinnati (U.S. Open Cup semifinal), 7 p.m. ET
- Aug. 26: at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Aug. 30: vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 3: at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 9: vs. Sporting Kansas City, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 16: at Atlanta United, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 20: vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 24: at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Sept. 30: vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Oct. 4: at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m. ET
- Oct. 7: vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Oct. 21: at Charlotte FC, 6 p.m. ET
With the exception of the U.S. Open Cup semifinal game on Aug. 23 (which will be available to stream on the CBS Sports Golazo Network), all other Inter Miami games are available to watch via the MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.