Lionel Messi needed just a few seconds for his unparalleled skills to shine, a flash of brilliance that capped a memorable Major League Soccer debut.
“I just catch myself watching him instead of picking up on my assignment,” Miami defender Kamal Miller said. “It’s tough to stay focused when you have such a great presence.”
Messi entered in the 60th minute along with former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets. Miami had gone ahead on a 37th-minute goal by Diego Gómez in a buildup started by Jordi Alba, another Barcelona alum on a night Miami gave six players MLS debuts.
Chants of “We Want Messi!” began in the sixth minute and a loud “Mes-si!” “Mes-si!” reverberated throughout in the 35th.
“When we found out that he wouldn’t be starting, I expected there was going to be a couple angry fans,” Miami right back DeAndre Yedlin said. “But if I was a kid or a fan and I came, I would want to see the greatest to ever play the game, as well, so I can’t blame them.”
Forty-eight years after Pelé joined the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos in an effort to jumpstart soccer in the United States, Messi followed David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimović in the bid to boost MLS closer to the more popular U.S. leagues.
Streets around outside the stadium were packed 2 1/2 hours before the match, filled with dozens of scalpers and people selling unlicensed Messi jerseys, and about half the fans wore jerseys of Messi’s three clubs and Argentina’s national team. A simulcast of the game was scheduled on a videoboard in Times Square.
A record crowd of 26,276 arrived at Red Bull Arena in the Red Bulls’ first home sellout this season, and resale tickets were listed for over $1,000 leading to the game.
“It’s pretty surreal to see. He’s probably the only man in the world that can get that kind of respect and reception every stadium he goes to,” Miller said.
Fans cheered when Messi started to warm up three minutes into the second half, and a roar erupted when coach Tata Martino signaled for him to take off his pinny and head to the center stripe.
Messi, Busquets and Alba were a class above the others.
“It’s like just instinct to them now,” Miller said. “They don’t even have to think where each other are going to be. They know where each other want the ball.”
Messi failed to score in his La Liga and Ligue 1 debuts. Anticipation was high when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner took a free kick from 21 yards in the 88th minute, but it was blocked by the defensive wall.
After Miami kept control in midfield, Busquets sent a cross to Alba just inside the penalty area and with his back to the ground and left leg raised, Alba used the side of his foot to center the ball to Messi. The 36-year-old star settled the ball to keep it from defender Peter Stroud, dribbled to his right and threaded a pass between Andrés Reyes and Daniel Edelman to 18-year-old American Benjamin Cremaschi.
As goalkeeper Carlos Coronel moved to cover his near post, Cremaschi beat defender John Tolkin and one-touched the ball back to Messi. He sprinted toward goal and let it bounce off his left foot and in into the unguarded net from 3 yards for his 11th goal in nine games for Miami in all competitions.
“Nothing surprises me anymore from him,” Martino said.
While MLS requires players to be available to media after games, Messi did not speak to reporters.
Messi played his first Miami game on July 21 in the Leagues Cup and scored 10 goals in seven games in that competition and a U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
Miami (6 wins, 14 losses, 3 draws) had not won a league match since May 13 against New England and had just one road victory, on April 29 at Columbus. New York fell to 7-10-8.
Miami scored the first goal when Alba took a free kick after a foul by Reyes and the ball was punched out Coronel. Robert Taylor played the ball wide to Noah Allen, and the 19-year-old defender made a diagonal pass to Gómez, who settled with a touch and put the ball inside the far post with a left foot shot from about 14 yards.
Fans were hoping Miami wouldn’t sit on the lead and give Messi a night off. Even teammates are fixated on his play.
“It surprises me and it doesn’t,” Yedlin said. “It surprises me because it’s just unbelievable to see, but it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it.”