Florida Derby draw shows Inter Miami needs work to succeed without Lionel Messi

    Inter Miami eked out a closely-run 0-0 draw with Florida rival Orlando City on Tuesday night. While the result kept Miami at the top of the MLS Eastern Conference standings, it did come as a surprise – and a disappointment – to the Miami faithful. When the two teams met in March of this year, Miami put in a swashbuckling performance and hammered Orlando 5-0.

    The difference? Lionel Messi. The Argentine playmaker was unavailable for Miami Tuesday night and his absence was felt all over the field.

    “There is something that when Leo Messi is absent cannot be recreated and is impossible to accomplish, which is his capacity to play in the last 25 meters of the field,” Miami coach Tata Martino said after the match. “Everything good done in the buildup of the game needed Messi to finalize the play.”

    Messi has missed five of Miami’s MLS fixtures this season due to injury and he’s expected to miss another 5-to-8 matches this summer when he leads Argentina to the Copa America. Here’s how Miami can switch up its tactics to succeed without him:

    Keep the young players fit…and let them cook

    Miami’s most underrated players are its youngest: 19-year old American midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi and 21-year-old Argentine midfielder Federico Redondo. The two have been excellent for Miami this season when they’ve been available. But that’s the problem. Neither has been able to maintain fitness. Cremaschi missed the start of the season following a sports hernia operation while Redondo is currently out with an LCL tear.

    With a starting lineup comprised of injury-prone veterans, Miami needs to work to keep young players like Cremaschi and Redondo healthy. They’re natural backups for Messi and can create goal-scoring opportunities in his absence. Redondo, in particular, has already proven adept at this. His assist got Miami back into the game against D. C. United earlier this season.

    Utilize Julian Gressel for breakthrough balls

    Longtime MLS fans may remember Gressel winning the Rookie of the Year award back in 2017 when he played for Atlanta. His secret? Moving out of a central midfield role and into a wingback position. 

    “When I move outside in a 3-5-2, I have the game in front of me a lot more,” Gressell told The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas during his Atlanta days. “I can see what’s going on and can pick out passes easier. It slows down a bit for me.”

    Gressel has found himself all over the field this season with Miami, but the Orlando game saw his grand return to the wingback position he favors. He looked dangerous all game and frequently found through-balls for Miami’s strikers. While Gressel needs time to adjust back into his favored position – and Miami needs time to get used to him being there – the switch could be a game-changer during the MLS midseason slog.

    Sign some defenders

    Miami has the best record in MLS this season, but that’s in spite of its defense, not because of it. The team has won a whopping 10 games from losing positions in 2024. Despite sitting in first place, it has conceded more goals than all but five of the Eastern Conference teams.

    Messi’s goals and assists have been masking Miami’s defensive woes, but they’re bound to be exposed when he heads off to the Copa this summer. Signing a strong MLS defender could do wonders to mitigate that. Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls – the two teams chasing Miami in the East – did this during the offseason and are already reaping the benefits.

    Miami will continue its season this weekend against D. C. United. While Messi is not guaranteed to start, the soccer superstar is expected to be available to play.

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