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Messi scores in MLS debut to secure Miami win

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.

Messi’s dazzling goal in the 89th minute helped a transformed Inter Miami beat the New York Red Bulls 2-0 on Saturday night and end an 11-match league winless streak.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

“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.

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