While Inter Miami haven't played a Major League Soccer game since signing Lionel Messi, that hasn't stopped the superstar from putting the league on notice. In the process of winning two Leagues Cup matches, Messi scored three goals and assisted one more so teams must already be asking themselves the age old question -- how can we stop Messi from scoring and assisting at will? But it's not as simple as just stopping Messi. The league's most iconic signing has brought along Sergio Busquets as well, who can help set up teammates. Their former Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba is on the way as well, and new manager Tata Martino has other talented young players at his disposal too.
Messi got his first start in the Pink and Black against Atlanta United a team which is far from a strong MLS defense and while Messi carved them apart, the Five Stripes were able to show some of the pitfalls that other teams can hope to avoid. And while the Argentine legend has dominated every league that he has faced, now that he's arrived in America, it's a good time to paint a picture of what makes him so dangerous and how Orlando City SC can try to contain Messi in the knockout stage of the Leagues Cup on Wednesday, and what the rest of MLS can look to do after that.
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Take care of Busquets
When looking at Inter Miami, the gravitational pull of Messi leads teams to forget that Busquets is a legend in his own right. Not only is Busquets' mind for the game sharp, but he can play a cutting pass if given time too. When teams focus too much on Messi and forget to press Busquests, it can become too easy for him to find the appropriate pass making things happen which is just the mistake that Atlanta made.
Having played with Messi for years, they can communicate by what seems like telepathy, so Messi knows exactly when to make a run and Busquets knows just when and where to find him. When it happens, it doesn't matter what team in the world they're playing, the sequence is ending in a goal.
Atlanta United made that mistake and paid dearly for it.
So the plan starts with cutting off supply from Busquets, but that on its own isn't enough as there are nine other players on the team who can find Messi.
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Know where Messi is at all times
If you're able to stop the players supplying Messi from deep, the next step is figuring out how to track him in attacking areas of the pitch. That task is made even more difficult given that he's playing alongside Josef Martinez in Miami, and a team that overcommits to Messi will find Martinez can also beat them by creating space along the back line. For Miami's second goal against Atlanta United, the entire front three got involved with Robert Taylor playing the pass into the box, Martinez dragging defenders and then Messi finishing the chance for the goal.
Realistically, if a defense isn't disciplined in keeping their wide defenders back then goals like this one won't be stopped, which just once again shows why Messi makes Miami such a dangerous team in a short amount of time.
Stop Messi the scorer, deal with Messi the creator
While Messi's goalscoring is jaw-dropping, his passing is wizardry is why he ended last season with 16 goals and 16 assists for Paris Saint-Germain. When a team does what they should to stop Messi from scoring, they likely are leaving other members of Miami's team open to be found, and if they are, Messi will find them. Day by day, he's building a stronger chemistry with the team for attacking movements which will only lead to more goals like Taylor's against Atlanta.
Messi is covered as Atlanta concedes the goal but no one is tracking Taylor making it an easy pass for the finishing goal. Even when a team does everything right, goals like this are unstoppable especially as more depth is added to the squad. The only way to hope to stop Messi is by fouling him in attacking positions and hoping that he doesn't score more free kicks. It can lead to red cards and penalties but when no league in the world has been able to answer the question of how to contain Messi, it's not like MLS will slow him down either.
So, if you're keeping track at home. First, cut off the supply line by pressuring Busquets. Second, maintain awareness of space so that Messi can't be a decoy. Third, foul him so he can't get his shot off. Fourth, accept he's probably still going to do something magical anyway
How to watch and odds
- Date: Wednesday, August 2 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
- Location: DRV PNK Stadium -- Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- TV: None | Live stream: MLS Season Pass