Moments after his free kick from just outside the box failed to clear the wall of defenders the New York Red Bulls had set up — a type of try he has converted into goals hundreds of times over his career — Lionel Messi’s appearance at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night appeared destined to be a three-phrase description: plenty of pre-match buildup, lots of match-day excitement, but few on-field moments for the record crowd to take home.
Then Messi struck as only he can – and in the 89th minute.
First, he deftly handled a pass inside the box. Then — despite being surrounded by three defenders — he delivered a flick of a pass off the outside of his foot to a teammate that only he could make. That was followed by a run to the net, a pass back, and a deflection home that seemingly anyone in the record crowd of 26,276 could have finished.
Messi, as he has with each game since joining Major League Soccer six weeks ago, delivered.
Messi –> Cremaschi –> MESSI
OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. pic.twitter.com/NzBKniNExm
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 27, 2023
The actual goal meant little to what would become a 2-0 Inter Miami FC victory — but plenty to the MLS playoff spots both clubs are chasing. The match, however, meant far more to the league as a whole. Messi, who played just 30 minutes, did his part in the first of two visits he’ll make to the region.
Afterward, Red Bulls head coach Troy Lesesne said using a key moment for the league as a key moment for the team was a message he had been preaching all week.
“Our main focus the whole week was this was a three-point opportunity (and) that we had a job to do; we wanted to stay laser focused on that,” he said. “We didn’t want to get too involved in the spectacle of what the night would be.”
That being said, Lesesne realized the opportunity it brought.
“I’d love to use the opportunity to say that anyone that was new to the stadium tonight hopefully got to have a great experience; I hope that they come back,” he said.
A pre-match stroll around the arena in Harrison showed just what that potential could be.
If you’re going to lease an apartment within 100 yards of Red Bull Arena, you’d better be a soccer fan. Having friends that are even bigger soccer fans is a plus.
That sums up Brad Morgan, a West Jersey native who moved to Harrison in 2016 and lives in the Wyldes.
In January, when he and his buddies were picking out games for their partial plan, one had heard rumors that Messi had been talking with Inter Miami owner David Beckham.
“He said, ‘Guys, I’m hearing about this connection — let’s take a flyer on this game,’” Morgan said he told them.
That’s how the group ended up with four seats in Section 127 — 12 rows up from the center of the pitch — in January, when they could be had for just $70.
Their value Saturday was much higher. And, Morgan admits, they thought about cashing in.
“I was on vacation when they announced Messi was going to Miami,” he said. “I immediately went on StubHub and saw seats in my area instantly jump to $4,000.”
Or, enough to cover a month’s rent with plenty to spare.
Soon after, the group texts started to go out: When do we want to consider selling?
Morgan held firm.
“I said, ‘We’re not,’” he said. “They said, ‘OK, but if it gets to $10,000, we need to consider it.’”
Morgan wasn’t budging.
“I was like, ‘Guys, don’t be greedy,’’ he told them. “How many times in your life are you going to be able to say you sat 12 rows back, in the center of the pitch, and watched the greatest player of all time.’”
Even at 5 p.m., or more than two hours before the first kick, group after group were being turned away by the staff at Joia Restaurant, located down the block from Red Bull Arena. No reservation, no chance.
Here’s what they didn’t know: Tables for a pre-match meal had been gobbled up a month ago, when it became clear that Messi was coming.
That announcement turned what always is a good match-day crowd into something unprecedented, said manager Matthew Shelley, who thought he had seen it all in his six years of running the place.
“We’ve had big games before,” he said. “We had a Premier League (Summer Series) game a few weeks ago, and plenty of international matches, but this is different.”
For starters, it is more of a family crowd, he said. And then, there’s this: Even after the game started, the restaurant had more than 40 reservations.
“I guess people just want to be down here today,” he said.
Business on the unofficial market — that is, the tailgating lots — was even brisker.
Messi jerseys, scarves, hats, flags and pins were moving.
Daniel from Lyndhurst (funny how parking-lot salespeople don’t like to give out their last name or the ‘company’ they are working for) said he had moved more than 100 of the 200 Messi jerseys he brought in a duffel bag. And this was more than three hours before the start of the match.
Jerseys went from anywhere between $40-$60; scarves, hats and flags were closer to $25. Pins were five bucks. Their range in authenticity may have been greater. Buyer beware. That wasn’t a concern for Daniel. Neither was the large police presence. Crowd control was their only thought.
Daniel had a bigger worry.
“I’m hoping to be able to sell all of them quickly,” he said. “I want to get home and watch the game.”
Inside Red Bull Arena, sales at the official team store were strong, including for the third jersey (that saluted the 50th anniversary of hip-hop) that was being worn for the first time.
But there wasn’t a line out the door. And no one seemed to be bothered that the store had a few Messi T-shirts.
It wasn’t just a MetroStars jersey — it was a Tab Ramos MetroStars jersey.
When you’re sporting the look of the team’s original name and one of league’s first big signings (a New Jersey high school legend), you know the Messi moment is not a one-and-done experience.
Far from it, said Ron Novotny of the Empire Supporters Club — the team’s oldest fan club, one that started in 1995 when MLS announced there would be a team in “New York,” not even determining which side of the river it would be located on.
Novotny and hundreds of others come to every game. He travels in from Long Island. And, while he knows many of the 10,000 or so fans that were above the normal attendance were there for Messi, he hopes they will come back for the Red Bulls.
That’s why Novotny didn’t mind the sea of pink Jerseys.
“I bleed red, but I think this is great for Major League Soccer,” he said. “Messi brings MLS to another level. I remember when David Beckham came here (to Giants Stadium in 2007), it was the same type of atmosphere we have today.”
While Beckham came to save MLS — one of many big stars who have attempted to do so — there was a feeling Saturday night Messi’s impact will be just to enhance.
The days of building U.S. soccer leagues around international icons — Pele was the Messi of his day when he came to the Cosmos in 1970s — are over.
At least, that’s how Lesesne sees it.
In case you missed it:
- Messi mayhem: Red Bulls planning grand event worthy of world’s best player Saturday night
- Red Bulls — for brief moment — thought of moving Messi game to MetLife Stadium
- Red Bulls’ GM: Team will make ‘significant investment’ in roster in 2024
- Red Bulls promoting jersey sales for Saturday’s big game — just not Messi’s
Lesesne loves that Messi is in the league. He called the crowd noise when he entered the game the loudest he ever has heard at a game — for a goal or anything else. He just hopes the fans understand the league also is building around future stars.
The Red Bulls had seven starters that were 22 or younger, he said. Inter Miami had lots of young talent, too.
“Our club promotes young players to give them an opportunity to try to get to the stage, to the level of someone like Jordi Alba,” he said, referencing the international star that made the pass to Messi that started the late goal. “That’s what John Michael Tolkin is trying to do right now, and our club provides that opportunity. Daniel Edelman is trying to get to the level of Sergio Busquets.
“They have close to a hundred games under their belt, and that’s a special thing to watch.”
Few things, however, will be as special as the play Messi made to get his 11th goal in just nine games with Miami — a magical moment that matched the buildup.