Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of a Leagues Cup soccer semifinal Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, in Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
CHESTER, Pennsylvania— Lionel Messi keeps scoring goals, and Inter Miami keeps winning games.
Messi ripped a shot from 30 yards past three Philadelphia defenders in the 20th minute that made fans who paid a record price for soccer tickets in the Philly area rejoice, and Inter Miami beat the Union 4-1 in a Leagues Cup semifinal on Tuesday night.
Major League Soccer is Messi’s league now.
Messi exchanged jerseys with fellow Argentinian and Union forward Julián Carranza, then skipped out on the traditional postgame interview and instead saved his message for his 483 million Instagram followers.
“We worked our way to the finals and we made it!!! We’re still on the last step,” he wrote.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner scored his ninth goal in six matches with his new team in front of a crowd that pushed 20,000 fans, with ticket prices soaring past $1,000 on the secondary market.
There were few complaints.
Certainly not from three Union season-ticket holders who ditched the home team’s garb for a night and traded it for Messi gear. Or fans that lined up for Messi jerseys — authenticity not guaranteed — and the ones hungry at a food truck for Messi fries.
And certainly not from the Union, who, of course wanted to win, but otherwise stuffed the coffers and received more worldwide attention on one night than in any game they’ve played in their history.
Fans erupted when the 36-year-old Messi was introduced and went wild again when he scored past diving goalkeeper Andre Blake. Messi ran with his arms extended and then punched his fist in the air as he leapt in celebration.
The rest was almost incidental.
Jordi Alba and Josef Martinez also scored in the first half for Miami, and David Ruiz scored in the second. Miami will play in the Leagues Cup championship game Saturday against Nashville, which beat Mexican club Monterrey 2-0 later Tuesday night.
Alejandro Bedoya scored in the second half for Philadelphia.
“They’re only going to get better. That Miami team is gonna go,” Union coach Jim Curtin said. “Their ownership is going to spend like crazy. They’re going to make them the best team in the league. They might already be the best team in the league. That’s coming and I don’t think anything’s stopping them.”
Union principal owner Jay Sugarman told The Associated Press there was no real consideration given to moving the game from Subaru Park to Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles. While the football stadium would have packed in another 40,000-plus fans, Sugarman said told him the game would stay put.
Philly native and Hall of Fame boxer Bernard Hopkins struck the 6-foot drum that welcomed the team to the field and Sixers center and NBA MVP Joel Embiid, who played soccer as a child in Cameroon, showed interest in the game.
“Make sure y’all show love to the (goat) in our city tonight but let’s first get this dub #DOOP #Philly,” he wrote on social media.
Inter Miami already played in Chester before Messi had signed, leaving Union officials to study the Leagues Cup field like an NCAA Tournament bracket once it was announced.
“You try not to, but of course we were like, if we do this, and they do this,” Sugarman said, laughing. “We hope we’re playing in front of a worldwide audience tonight. It’s a chance for the Philadelphia Union to put on the best show we can against one of the best teams and best players.”
Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, right, kicks the ball for a goal next to Philadelphia Union’s Jose Martinez, left, during the first half of a Leagues Cup soccer semifinal Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, in Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
The Union fell well short of that standard.
“I think there is a little bit of, we were too excited, maybe we showed a little too much respect,” Curtin said. “We got punished by a good team. We got humbled a bit.”
Led by the rabid supporters group called “Sons of Ben,” the Messi game sold out in less than 10 minutes and the price exploded this week on the secondary market. River End seats that normally go for $43 spiked to more than a grand, and the average price of $556 was the highest in Union history. An hour or so before the game, tickets in the lower level were still going for $450 and up.
“People love Messi,” Inter Miami defender Sergii Kryvtsov said.
All around the world and especially Tuesday outside the stadium, where it was Messi Mania for the superstar, who led Argentina to the World Cup title last year and has essentially become a one-man 1992 Dream Team.
Angel Pagan and her family, of Vineland, New Jersey, all wore Messi shirts — even though they are Union season-ticket holders. They love Messi so much, their youngest son is named Lionel in his honor. She upgraded her tickets for the game to sit closer to the field and said only they were “very, very expensive.”
“We didn’t care what it cost,” she said. “It’s Messi.”
Under Curtin, in his 10th season, the Union blossomed into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and clinched their first Supporters’ Shield trophy — awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record — in 2020. A season ago, the Union fell to LAFC in the MLS Cup. NBA superstar Kevin Durant, now with the Phoenix Suns, thought enough of the Union’s potential to buy a stake in the team.
The Union’s path — and all other teams’ — to an MLS championship suddenly seems complicated by Messi’s arrival.
“This is a fantastic league with a growing fanbase, but you always need that match to really light it,” Sugarman said. “Messi is the match.”
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