Major League Soccer (MLS) is one of the fastest-growing leagues in the world. With the addition of a San Diego expansion club, MLS will have its 30th team, despite the league being only 29 years old. It took the NBA, NFL, and MLB 58, 75, and 122 years to reach that mark, respectively.
Despite decades worth of rapid growth, MLS popularity reached a fever pitch it never imagined it would in June of 2023 when Lionel Messi announced he would depart Paris Saint-Germain and ultimately join Inter Miami.
Messi took the league by storm, scoring 11 goals in his first 13 appearances, making Inter Miami’s match with Atlanta United one of the most anticipated matches in MLS history. It gave fans the desire to join the action and grab a stake of their own in the match, as well as watch in person, something Atlanta fans have proven to be the league’s best at.
The Messi Question
Over 71,000 fans turned out for the match, largely thanks to the possibility of a Messi appearance. It was the 3rd largest crowd in the club’s history, a history that features eight of the top 10 highest attendance games in MLS history. However, according to Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Messi had been dealing with muscular fatigue leading up to the match.
He wasn’t in Argentina’s lineup for their match in Bolivia and left a World Cup qualifying win the previous week. Martino told the media that Messi was fine, but they wanted to be cautious with him due to Miami having “a lot of important games in a short span.” Between his club and national team duties, Messi had a packed schedule leading up to the Atlanta game. Miami’s schedule was similarly packed, with a quick turnaround of two days from their previous match against Toronto FC. As a result, Messi sat out the much-anticipated match.
Messi’s absence was a letdown for Miami — a team with fewer points than every team on the table except Toronto FC. Since joining the club, Inter Miami has won each of its last 12 matches. And without Messi, they’ve walked into a hostile stadium to face a team that overmatched them. Atlanta currently sits in sixth place on the table with 50 points compared to Inter Miami’s 33.
First Half: An Early Lead For Miami Quickly Disappears
Despite being the heavy favorite, Atlanta still managed to concede first. Leonardo Campana scored twice in the match, with the first goal coming in the 25th minute to give Inter Miami a 1–0 lead. However, Atlanta was aggressive offensively towards the end of the half, looking for a first-half goal, and Miami’s lead quickly evaporated. Tristan Muyumba finally connected on an equalizer in the 36th minute after having many chances, including a great chance from Brooks Lennon to Matheus Rossetto in the 19th minute in the first half. The header from Muyumba was his first goal of the season.
The tie quickly turned into a lead for the 5-Stripes in an odd fashion. Xande Silva lofted a cross towards the box, which found the back of Miami’s Kamal Miller, deflecting into the back of the net for an own goal. Three minutes later, Lennon got another chance and took advantage, taking a touch and firing a shot past the hand of Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender to make it a 3–1 first-half advantage.
For those counting at home, Atlanta scored three times in eight minutes, the second-fastest time in club history.
2nd Half: An Unfortunate and Unlucky Moment for Miami
Inter Miami did chip away at the lead early in the second half, thanks to a Luis Abram handball that resulted in a free kick. Campana converted for his second goal of the match, making it a 3-2 score. Unfortunately for Miami fans, that was the best the half would get. Atlanta continued to dominate the game, taking more shots and doubling Miami’s shots on goal.
They added to the lead in the 76th minute on Thiago Almada’s club record-breaking 15th assist of the season when he found Saba Lobjanidze for Atlanta’s fourth goal of the match. They added one more for good measure in the 89th minute, thanks to a strong defensive play by Lobjanidze. He found Tyler Wolff at the top of the box, who put his shot in the back of the net.
What’s Next For Both Teams?
The win improved Atlanta’s record to 12-9-8, while Miami dropped to 8-4-15, losing their first match since adding Messi. As it stands, Atlanta has clinched an Eastern Conference playoff spot, while Inter Miami was previously eliminated. United has just one more game to improve its standing within the table, traveling to Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium on October 21 to take on FC Cincinnati, which sits at the top of the table.