No athlete attracts an A-list crowd quite like Lionel Messi, as demonstrated by Sunday’s Major League Soccer game between Inter Miami and Los Angeles FC.
A long list of celebrity names watched from the stands during Miami’s 3-1 victory in California, including Prince Harry, Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and Will Ferrell – who is a co-owner of LAFC – actress and musician Selena Gomez, and rapper Tyga.
The star-studded audience was testament to Messi’s ongoing impact on soccer in the US. Ticket demand for Miami games has soared since the Argentinian’s arrival, with the average prices around $690 for Sunday’s match – the most expensive MLS game ever, according to online marketplace TickPick.
Since moving from Paris Saint-Germain, Messi is having a huge impact on the pitch, as well as off it. Miami, on a nine-game winless run prior to the 36-year-old’s debut, is now unbeaten in 11 games and captured its first trophy last month.
The victory against defending MLS Cup champion LAFC was the latest win in Miami’s dramatic turnaround, which has also been sparked by the arrival of Messi’s former Barcelona teammate, Sergio Busquets.
But it was another former Barcelona star, Jordi Alba, who scored one of Miami’s three goals on Sunday. Facundo Farías gave the visiting team the lead in the first half with an unconventional sliding finish – despite LAFC controlling the opening stages of the game – before Alba was put into space by Messi’s pass and calmly placed his shot past goalkeeper John McCarthy.
Messi was also the provider for his team’s third goal, capitalizing on a mistake from LAFC defender Aaron Long and putting Leonardo Campana through to score.
Ryan Hollingshead pulled one back with a glancing header from a corner, but it was too little, too late for LAFC, which had 22 shots over the course of the match. The home side was left to rue numerous squandered chances, notably through misfiring forward Dénis Bouanga.
As well his two assists, Messi also had a glorious chance to add to his tally of 11 goals since joining Miami, only to see his first-half effort brilliantly saved by McCarthy.
The combination of Messi’s shot and McCarthy’s quick reactions seemed to impress Gomez in the stands: she appeared to watch on in astonishment with her mouth agape.
“We said before the match that it was a good test for us to see where we were at and what we are capable of,” Messi, who later signed autographs for “Zoolander” and “Cars” star Wilson’s family, told MLS Español.
“We played in a difficult stadium against a very good opponent, the defending champion. And yeah, it’s a good result for what’s up ahead.”
He added: “The truth is, every day the group grows. We’ve said it since the beginning that when we were all together, we had the luck to win a tournament [the Leagues Cup], to get into a final and, well, now we’re going to try to get into the final eight to try to win the league.”
After winning the Leagues Cup last month, Miami is looking to climb up the Eastern Conference having been bottom of the standings before Messi’s arrival.
It next faces Sporting Kansas City on September 9, while LAFC, currently third in the West Conference standings, plays the Portland Timbers.