Updated: Sep 23
In case you missed it, on Sunday, Sept. 3, Lionel Messi and friends delivered a tasteful 3-1 conquest over MLS powerhouse Los Angeles Football Club, answering the intriguing, headline-inducing query: What happens when an international superstar comes to an American city known for its famous people?
To answer that, we must exam the degree of "superstar-ness" present that day. In addition to Messi, Inter Miami casually fielded two other Barcelona legends, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. On the LAFC side, Carlos Vela continues to be a household name. Any other day, those players alone would be the featured headline and no doubt draw a number of new attendees, most likely Barca diehards and a smattering of comped celebs. But when it comes to Messi, his gravitational pull is so great it brought in names from all walks of fame—British royalty, A-list pop stars, Oscar winners, and a horde of devotees who have been following him stadium to stadium cross-country, fresh pink jerseys in tow.
MLS is no stranger to fielding big-time footballers from abroad—Kaka, Thierry Henry, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are among the many legends who have graced the grass (sometimes turf) of America's domestic league. Still their reach, especially in the American public, extends only so far. In fact, that is one of the appeals of playing in the U.S.—less daily recognition and less paparazzi. A luxury lifestyle without the constant invasion of privacy. Not so for Messi.
Leo's presence at LAFC generated the most expensive MLS match in league history, with tickets ranging from $800 to $11,000. Lucky season ticket holders could easily resell for $500 a pop. And for the mind-boggling steep prices, the match delivered on dramatics, both on and off the pitch.
MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winners LAFC took a characteristically aggressive approach from the get-go, showing they feared no amount of Barca boys, and outshot the visitors 10 to 4 in the first half. But Inter Miami keeper Drake Callender delivered a stellar performance and deserves much of the credit for preventing LAFC from taking an early lead.
That, coupled with some uncharacteristic misses from LAFC's Denis Bouanga and a defensive lapse in LAFC's backline led to the Herons opening the scoresheet off a sliding shot from Argentinian attacker Facundo Farias at 14'.
With the game very much within reach, LAFC took on the second half with equal fervor, again posting twice the amount of shots as their opponents. But the Catalan connection would prove too difficult for the Black & Gold, as combination play between Busquets and Messi led to an easy tap-in for Alba at 51', increasing their lead to 2-0. Messi found another assist at 83', this time to late-game sub Leonardo Campana, stamping the game at 3-0.
At 90', LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead was able to pull one back, if only to save face in what many regarded as LAFC's game to win.
While not LAFC's best night, the match did provide some memorable highlights, in particular a McCarthy denial of a Messi sitter, leading to this gem of an Internet moment. (McCarthy was able to secure Messi's jersey post-match for his valiant effort).
LA fans were also treated to a real-life pitch invader and the sight of Messi's personal bodyguard sprinting into action.
Not only is Messi's fast-acting security slowly becoming an Internet celebrity, but the win extends Inter Miami's undefeated streak to a club-best of 11, building on the already massive impact Messi has had on the club and league.
Since his arrival in July, Inter Miami's instagram account garnered 11.7 million new followers and sign-ups for Apple TV's MLS Pass soared from 6,143 the day before Messi's debut to over 110,000 the day of his first match. Messi's Inter Miami jersey was the top-selling jersey across all sports between mid-July to mid-August. His presence has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue in a once-in-a-lifetime dream scenario for the MLS. Even those clueless people on the street interviewees know and appreciate the living legend. And if that's not a sign of truly far-reaching name recognition, nothing is.