Miami finding ways to win without Messi as Copa America looms

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Rain swept through South Florida, drenching supporters, slowing down players and complicating Saturday’s MLS match between Inter Miami CF and D.C. United to create a dismal atmosphere. The grim weather mirrored the performances from both teams on the pitch, as the stalemate dragged into the second half. The deadlock felt unbreakable at either end, before the final second of the match witnessed a phenomenon.

Seconds after entering the game due to a substitution triggered by the MLS concussion protocol, Leonardo Campana made his first touch and set himself up to score a right-footed, game-winning banger and inject life into an otherwise uninspiring match.

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The dread that once carried through the stands at Chase Stadium was suddenly replaced with frantic joy as Campana paraded shirtless, Miami head coach Gerardo Martino cracked the first smile in 90 minutes, and water splashed with every jump of joy by fans.

Critics often say the best clubs are those who find a way to win in the most difficult situations, even when playing badly. Does Saturday’s 1-0 victory mean that Miami have graduated into a team that can survive a match without a Lionel Messi miracle?

The Argentine forward usually headlines a game with at least one goal and one assist, stealing the show with his knowledge of spatial awareness and talented left-foot. He currently leads the league in assists with 10 and stands in third place for most goals scored this season. Only Luis Suárez has more goals than Messi within Inter Miami, allowing the Uruguayan to be tied for second place in the MLS Golden Boot race.

The two made history against the New York Red Bulls at the beginning of May, after Suarez recorded his first hat trick in the league while Messi became the first MLS player to manage five assists and one goal in a single half.

Together, the two are credited for 25 of Miami’s 36 goals scored this season but, against D.C. United, the often-deadly duo made no contributions in attack. It’s now the second consecutive match without a strike from Messi or Suarez, after the Argentine sat out the midweek game against Orlando City SC with an injury, while the Uruguayan lined up alongside Matías Rojas and Robert Taylor. Still, Inter Miami have collected four points in the last two games.

Surviving without Messi seemed impossible just one week ago, with the Herons suffering from early goals and a lack of structure. On May 11, CF Montreal scored against Inter Miami in the first half to mark the team’s seventh consecutive time of conceding a goal first. The streak started on April 6 against the Colorado Rapids, and extended to MLS and Concacaf Champions Cup action in games versus Monterrey, NYRB, New England Revolution, Nashville SC and Sporting Kansas City.

“Yes [we’ve conceded really early goals.] We talk about it throughout the week, during the tactical discussions, the minute before going into the game. But they still do it,” Martino said on May 2.

“That’s the bad part, but the good part is we know how to come back from it … But it is a problem to solve. It’s constantly talked about, extremely talked about. Until now, we can’t see the solution.”

Now, however, Martino may have found the formula and the foundations of a stable Miami defence. The team recorded their second consecutive clean sheet, earning shutouts against Orlando and now D.C. United despite the two sides boasting strong offensive figures. The backline of Nicolás Freire, Tomás Avilés, Marcelo Weigandt and Jordi Alba withstood the likes of Luis Muriel, Facundo Torres and Christian Benteke with ease, avoiding any need for a comeback that the team consistently needed earlier this season.

“Tomas Aviles was the best player of the match against D.C. United,” Martino said after complimenting the defence for their efforts.

Beyond the backline avoiding concession, Inter Miami’s secondary characters are now slowly getting more involved. Benjamin Cremaschi boasted a passing accuracy of 92% and completed two shots to test D.C. United goalkeeper Alex Bono, while Rojas boasted one shot. Substitute Campana led the expected goal percentage with .16, drastically surpassing Messi’s .04 and Suarez’s 0.0.

The two consecutive results without a contribution from Messi signal hope for Inter Miami as the Copa America approaches. The team will be without their best player, and several other figures, for five matches: Philadelphia Union (June 15), Columbus Crew (June 19), Nashville SC (June 29), Charlotte FC (July 3), and FC Cincinnati (July 6).

The recurring question has been: how will Miami manage during the upcoming FIFA window? With Messi dominating most matches and orchestrating the comeback from costly defensive errors, the future looked murky for the Herons. But ultimately, the success of a club cannot depend on the performance of just one player. Inter Miami previously struggled with that concept, but the win over D.C. United has now calmed nerves.

“If these players find themselves in form, with confidence, secure, and understand the challenges of the five games after St. Louis, it’s clear that we’ll be able to survive Copa America,” Martino said.

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