How Messi fueled Inter Miami’s six-goal second half against the Red Bulls

Lionel Messi set multiple MLS records on Saturday as Inter Miami dismantled the New York Red Bulls 6-2. 

Messi’s five assists and one goal catapulted him ahead of former LAFC forward Carlos Vela’s rate during his record-setting 2019. It also set new high marks for assists and goal contributions in one MLS game.

It was a masterclass second half from Miami, forever overshadowing the fact that the Red Bulls went into halftime with a 1-0 lead.

Before breaking down how Miami scored six goals in 45 minutes, thanks in large part to Messi, it’s important to understand the opponent. New York’s season was off to a great start entering Saturday night, having lost just once in their first 10 games. Emil Forsberg has swiftly acclimated to his new starring role in midfield, homegrown players Daniel Edelman and John Tolkin have continued to impress and last year’s marquee signing Dante Vanzeir has been a chance-creating machine. On Saturday, the roles reversed with Forsberg setting up Vanzeir’s second goal of the season. 

They’ve also found success despite a notable departure from their football group’s guiding principles. The Red Bulls appointed former Hertha BSC manager Sandro Schwarz as head coach this offseason. Seemingly, that appointment also came with approval to abandon the dogmatic Red Bull DNA, allowing his team to defend differently than years past. 

red bull press

Playing with a similarly positioned defensive line — the average opponent has been flagged offside 26 meters from goal in both 2023 and 2024 — the Red Bulls have traded some of that energy expending from high pressing for additional intentionality in possession. They’re more selective with their passes instead of forcing it upfield, going from a 71.6% completion rate in 2023 to 80.7% this year. 

That focus on retention extends to their backline, which is far less likely to hoof it down the center of the pitch than in bygone seasons.

red bulls cbs

It’s important to stress that this year’s New York Red Bulls are a good team who have been doing good things for the majority of the season. It’s also worth emphasizing that this is a good team that’s still working on encoding a new coach’s scheme into its second-nature decision making. 

With that said, here’s how Miami forced them into one of the worst 45-minute windows that any MLS team has ever experienced.

1. The opener

Miami usually begins sequences 45.6 meters from Drake Callender’s net — average for an MLS team since 2019. They also like stringing together long series of passes. 14.3% of Miami’s sequences this season involve nine or more passes. That’s second-highest in the league (trailing the LA Galaxy), and is also higher than any team has recorded in a full season since the start of 2019. On Saturday, they raised that rate to 17.6% of their sequences against New York.

The most lethal example came just after halftime. A misplayed ball by Frankie Amaya led to Miami clearing it off an opponent for a throw-in. Fourteen passes later, they were back on level terms.

First Goal Rojas

Miami takes its time to plot its course upfield. Inviting pressure into their defensive half declutters the part of the field that serves as Messi’s playground. Given some relatively limited mobility at play, relying on progressing upfield on the dribble would be an arduous task. Instead, slinging passes is the solution — and doing so effectively requires plenty of open space, hence the recirculations. 

Eventually, four Red Bulls commit to pressing, and there’s enough room for some home cooking. Sergio Busquets — remember him? He’s become weirdly anonymous as we discuss Miami — knocks the ball into the space to his right before cleanly hitting a 45-meter pass to Messi, with midfielder Matías Rojas darting forward to add another option.

Messi serves as an unconventional hold-up forward in these cases: obviously far more diminutive than the usual battering ram, but his technical ability in tight spaces and otherworldly reading of a live game can be even more effective. Plus, he’s generally accepted as the focal point of every defense’s game-planning. He’s the fire, they’re the moths. It often goes up in flames.

2. When playing out of the back goes wrong

Luis Suarez is down. I repeat: Luis Suarez is down.

Suarez down

Here, Suarez can’t win an aerial duel, with the ball falling to Andres Reyes, who hits it wide to Kyle Duncan. The right back tries a give-and-go with Wikelman Carmona.

(Note: Here we will refer to an Argentine, a Colombian, a Paraguayan, and a Uruguayan — and plenty of players from the United States. It could also have mentioned a Brazilian and an Ecuadorian from Miami’s bench. Fight back that Copa América fever while you can.)

Second Goal Messi

From there, Rojas converges as Carmona looks upfield. To him, any forward progress is a risk, and he seems to retain possession — one of those breaks from past principles. The indecision leaves him facing his own goal as Rojas pokes around him to knock the ball off of his shin to where Suarez is, having only just returned to his feet. Suarez helps the ball get to Messi, and you’ve seen what happens next hundreds of times over the years. 

In a way, the goal happens because Suarez plays possum rather than in spite of the tumble. New York let its guard down around the Uruguayan, and some smart two-man pressing manipulated the Red Bulls enough to bring Suarez back into the play. The decision-making is suspect, but this Suarez-to-Messi goal is really the product of two supporting players’ industry.

3. Matías Rojas could get used to this

In Brazil, Matías Rojas’ biggest strengths were progressing the ball with his passing, shooting at relative volume, outpacing his expected goals with his goal output and being proactive at challenging opponents in possession. The Paraguayan joined Miami within budget last month after freeing himself from contract constraints with Corinthians thanks to unpaid image rights disputes

Rojas would be the best or second-best player on at least eight other MLS teams. Amongst Miami’s ex-Barcelona bunch, he’s more of a grizzled character actor than a leading man. 

Third Goal Rojas

In just his second MLS appearance, Rojas (who came on at halftime) is already forging a partnership in the build-up with Messi. The duo weaves through the Red Bull midfield, as multiple opponents are now committing fully to any opportunity to win back the ball and regain a foothold before this gets ugly. Unfortunately, it also leaves them just out of position when a lunge doesn’t pay off. 

The pair gets from midfield to the box in seven seconds, finessing through five opponents in the central channel with absolute precision. You get the sense that Rojas is really going to enjoy playing with Messi.

4. Suarez’s turn

Since making his regular season debut in August, Miami is 8-2-1 when Messi is in the starting lineup. All three teams that managed to nick a result forced Miami to shoot beyond 18 yards on at least 35% of their attempts. Miami has a record of 2-2-1 when taking shots outside the box that often and 6-0-0 when taking at least two-thirds from inside the box. It’s a small sample size, but the theory makes sense in concept: it’s harder to convert from long-range and hard to avoid players between the ball and goal.

Granted, making Miami shoot deep still isn’t a winning lottery ticket for your career. The one team to beat Miami when Messi started was Charlotte FC, who silenced Miami 1-0 on October 21 to secure a spot in the play-in round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. The coach behind that performance, Christian Lattanzio, was fired two weeks later and is still unemployed.

This past weekend, the Red Bulls were not among those five teams to force over a third of Miami’s shots to come from long distance.

Fourth Goal Suarez

In the past, Messi would take a ball like Suarez’s from Frame III, dart toward the box on his left foot, and make a goalkeeper look silly. Whether to protect his hamstring or set records for fun, he looks to play distributor as New York hurries back into its shape. The midfield is gassed, leaving the Red Bulls’ backline to fend for themselves. 

It’s hard to explain why two center backs would simultaneously decide not to at least get into Suarez’s space as Messi sets up to pass at the edge of the box. Perhaps Sean Nealis (the closer center back, top in the gif) wanted to be ready in case Messi rounded his teammates and dribbled toward goal. No matter the intention, it probably didn’t go according to plan, as Suarez is in the right spot to swing a leg and get in on the scoring.

5. Still Suarez’s turn

Miami has been far better at pressing from the front in 2024, forcing opponents into turnovers in their defensive third to create short-distance attacking moments. Through a dozen games, 21.7% of Miami’s possession sequences began in the attacking third. This approach caters to  Suarez and Messi’s lack of mobility at this stage in their careers. 

On Saturday, Miami began its possessions in the final third for just 9.9% of its sequences. That’s the lowest rate since Messi joined, with the previous being 13.8% against the Red Bulls last August. Doing so limited the potential for quick-strike counters and required a team of veterans to log more yards. In theory, this would help.

In practice, that task is made easier when the veteran team is on a hot streak and the more youthful one is frustrated and tired. 

Fifth Goal Suarez

Edelman, Red Bulls’ 21-year-old midfielder, gets beaten with a classic on-ball Messi feint, and his begging for assistance goes unanswered. Messi and Suarez are off, and the Red Bulls more closely resemble a herd of deer staring down some hot pink headlights.

The pair picked the defense apart through good footwork, smart passing and second-nature trust in a teammate’s decision-making concurrent with your own. Even if Suarez isn’t the runner he used to be, he’s still brilliant in the final third

6. Completing the 12-minute hat trick

More of the same, really. Suarez and Messi are out there having a catch in the “Field of Dreams”, and everyone around them may as well be a ghost. 

That doesn’t take away from a couple of brilliant individual tricks in the sequence, from Messi’s outer-boot assist to Suarez’s control to get around goalkeeper Carlos Coronel and finish from a quickly closing angle. 

Sixth Goal Suarez

Coronel registered -2.73 goals prevented when comparing six conceded goals to the expected goals on target he faced. How bad is that? Since the start of 2019, there have been 4,711 times where a goalkeeper has played all 90 minutes in an MLS game. Only four among those thousands had a worse rate in any one contest, each ultimately conceding six or seven goals. 

There wasn’t one obvious error that Miami exploited, and the Red Bulls’ midfield and forward lines largely played well. The reality remains that Miami is just that good when Messi and Suarez start. The duo has made a mockery of more illustrious competitions and opponents throughout their careers. 

Take solace, New York — they’ve done this to clubs and national teams the world over. It likely wasn’t personal.

(Top photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

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