LOS ANGELES — LAFC will host Inter Miami on September 3, 2023 at 7pm PT. Today’s matchup is the first and only contest between the two sides this regular season. It is also the first time since their inaugural game on March 20, 2020, that Miami have visited the 2022 MLS Cup title winners.
Some people shine so bright, the rest of us live under their shadows. Such a player is Lionel Messi. While the rest of Los Angeles is relishing their chance to soak up a bit of the Messi magic that has taken over the nation since his arrival, the message from LAFC was clear — they are not playing against the World Cup winner, rather they are playing against his current team.
This Sunday, the rising stars of Inter Miami, on a 10-match unbeaten run, will face off against LAFC. “It’s another home game that we want to win,” Steve Cherundolo voiced in their pre-match media day. “We cannot focus just on Messi. The game is LAFC against Miami” Giorgio Chiellini echoed. Across the entire team, a similar mindset was mimicked. “If we want to play one-against-one against Messi, it’s impossible to win, but I think, however LAFC could beat Miami as a group.”
Given the discourse of rivalry rife with competitive respectful spirit around the nation, you wouldn’t guess that LAFC are 2nd in the West while Miami are last in the East. There is only one reason — since Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordan Alba and their new head coach, Tata Martino who has won 17 titles as manager across his storied career, came onboard, Miami have been building up not only their own performance form, but their reputation around the world.
They’ve won their first franchise trophy (The 2023 Leagues Cup), reached the U.S. Open Cup Final (to be held in late September), and gone toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in MLS, Nashville SC, beating them in a shootout match and then sustaining their well-known offensive prowess in a regular season match. They have been accomplishing the impossible, rebuilding the chemistry, dynamics and form of a team once thought lost.
They have made it entertaining while also causing the soccer market in this country to shift. As Messi prepares for his upcoming match against Los Angeles FC (LAFC) with Inter Miami, ticket prices for this game skyrocketed, making it the most expensive MLS match in history. According to TickPick, an online marketplace specializing in ticket sales, average ticket prices for Sunday’s clash have surged to approximately $690. This extraordinary figure represents a staggering 527% increase compared to the average ticket price of an MLS game before Messi’s entry, which typically cost around $110.
Since Messi joined Miami, their rapid rise to the top of two of the three tournaments they were competing in this season, the U.S. Open Cup and the Leagues Cup which they won, has been remarkable. From a record of 10W-4D-10L in all comps without an unbeaten stretch longer than four since the start of the season, they have rebounded to a 10-match unbeaten streak, been crowned champions of the 2023 Leagues Cup and are punching in their spot in the U.S. Open Cup Final later this month. “It’s an illusion to try to think you’re going to stop him for 90 minutes. He’s going to have a chance or two. That’s just the way this game works,” Cherundolo emphasized. “If you try and focus on that, you’re going to miss out on opportunities to actually beat Miami.”
Messi has begun gathering his own collection of goal contributions in the 10 appearances he has made so far, he’s scored 11 of his own, assisting in an additional three, yet he is only the tip of the iceberg of Inter Miami’s meteoric rise in becoming one of the newest competitors in MLS making waves in the latter half of the season, joining the likes of clubs like St. Louis, Cincinnati, New England, and LAFC as favorite contenders for the MLS Cup while still being in 3rd in the league on points. His teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, along with Miami’s new coach, Tata Martino, have all pushed their side to score 27 goals in their current 10-match run, an accomplishment eclipsing the cumulative 26 scored in their previous 26 matches.
LAFC have also made significant moves with an intention towards bolstering the attack this summer. First, by acquiring forward Mario González from Sporting Clube de Braga as their chosen Number 9, and next with the addition of Cristian Olivera from La Liga. But their integration into LAFC’s lineup and their team impact has been less obvious, partly due to the lack of competitive playing time compared with Miami’s – first being knocked out of the Leagues Cup in the quarterfinal round, and not having a chance to play in the U.S. Open Cup at all after being defeated by LA Galaxy in the Round of 16 back in May.
The ripple effects of a doomed deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League continue to plague the defending MLS Cup champions. First, by impacting their schedule to the point of physical exhaustion. And, next by diminishing their chances to play over the last month impacting their form and cohesion. Considering that González has only played in three matches since joining, and Olivera in two, they have contributed just two goals in that time.
On the other hand, golden boot contender Denís Bouanga has been quietly working his way into a different role since August. In contrast with his eye-catching 19 goals he scored in all comps before August, he’s scored 6 goals in August during the Leagues Cup, and has contributed to 6 additional goals in the last 5 matches he played. His work to quietly and selflessly help his teammates shine, is like a match that will strike the flame in LAFC’s next nine matches leading into the playoffs.
Bouanga has already competed against Messi and scored – in both of Saint Étienne’s Ligue 1 matches against PSG while the GOAT of soccer was there, so he’s not new to the caliber of performance needed to compete on that level. “Of course, it’s always a pleasure to play against the best player in the world,” Bouanga said. “Especially for me, I’m very happy. I’m really hoping that we’re going to beat them with LAFC, because when I played in France with Saint-Étienne’s against PSG, it was really hard.”
It’s Messi’s final match in MLS before he rejoins his national team for their upcoming World Cup Qualifiers, but if the recent past is any indication, and with the stakes so high for both teams, fans can expect a memorable night.