When it was announced that Lionel Messi was coming to Major League Soccer, there was excitement, of course. But there were also doubts. Would he treat his stay in the league as a retirement tour or even a vacation? Would the lower stakes lead to less effort? Would his age — 36 — catch up to him?
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. It turns out that if you put the best player of his generation into M.L.S., less than two years removed from winning the Ballon d’Or as the game’s best player, and less than a year since he was named best player at the World Cup, he is going to be really, really good.
Messi had two more goals on Wednesday night, bringing his total to five in his three games for his new team, Inter Miami. Still saddled with the worst record in the league, Inter is playing with panache, and Messi, at times, looks unstoppable.
Messi’s arrival after two years at Paris St.-Germain coincided with the start of the Leagues Cup, a newly expanded tournament for teams from M.L.S. and Mexico’s Liga MX.
He entered his first game on July 21 against Cruz Azul of Mexico early in the second half. And perhaps with the flair of a showman he waited until deep into injury time to hit a free kick from behind the circle over the wall and in the corner of the net to break a 1-1 tie.
Eight minutes into his first start on July 25 against Atlanta, Messi was sprung clear, barely onside. He hit the post but slotted in the rebound. Later in the half, he latched onto a cross and had an easy second goal in what would eventually be a 4-0 win.
That put Miami in the round of 32 against Orlando on Wednesday night. In the first half, Messi, completely unmarked, chested down a pass in the box and one-timed it into the net. In the second half, again with lots of space, he took a little chip from Josef Martínez and volleyed it home. Miami won, 3-1.
Miami is now four wins away from the Leagues Cup title. Its form is all the more remarkable because the team pre-Messi was, quite simply, bad. It sits dead last of the 29 M.L.S. teams in the league standings with a 5-14-3 record. But that record does not matter at all in the Cup; Miami next travels to Dallas for a round of 16 game on Sunday.
Inter Miami made the playoffs last year with a .500 record and was expected to improve with the addition of Martínez. But nothing seemed to go right for the team in the early going.
Inter’s midseason revamp did not end with Messi. They also added two former greats at Barcelona, Messi’s longtime club, midfielder Sergio Busquets and defender Jordi Alba, as well as Diego Gómez, a young Paraguayan midfielder. Messi is often said to make his teammates better, and one who seems to have benefited is Robert Taylor, a Finnish wingback, who has been regularly involved in Messi’s attacks and also had two goals of his own in the Atlanta game.
It is impossible not to notice that in his games so far, Messi has been getting a lot more space to maneuver than he did in Europe. Of course, Messi is a genius at finding space. But the quality of the defending he is now facing is a clear cut below what he is used to.
In Champions League play, it was hardly unusual for him to be swarmed by strong, technically skilled defenders, some of whom had little compunction about pushing the physicality of their challenges to or beyond the legal limit.
M.L.S. defenders, whether overawed, less adept positionally or just too slow, haven’t kept anything like the same kind of pressure on him, at least so far. In his third game, Orlando did try to turn up the physicality, but the success of that tactic was debatable given his two goals.
Win or lose the Leagues Cup, Miami will return to M.L.S. league play on Aug. 20. With Superman now playing attacking midfielder, can they actually come back and make the playoffs, or even win the title?
They are 12 points and six places away from the playoff spots with just 12 games to play. That seems like a big gap. But based on his first three games, Messi looks like he can make a run at bridging it.