National Writer: Charles Boehm

Luis Suárez lifts Messi-less Inter Miami: “It was perfect”


WASHINGTON – Fatigue and injury concerns kept Lionel Messi back home in South Florida. But pink Inter Miami CF jerseys still dotted the crowd on Saturday's sunny spring afternoon at Audi Field, splashes of tropical color interspersed with flashes of FC Barcelona blaugrana amidst the home faithful’s ranks of black and red.

Both the action on the pitch and the split allegiance of the packed stadium soon confirmed it: Even when the GOAT is resting, the Herons remain star-studded, a box-office phenomenon wherever they go. If D.C. United thought Messi’s absence gave them an opening to extend their unbeaten start to the season, Luis Suárez and Leonardo Campana were ready and waiting to slam that door shut in an impressive 3-1 comeback win for a Miami side less than 72 hours removed from a key Concacaf Champions Cup advancement past Nashville SC.

“This was a big one,” said Miami’s Julian Gressel. “Short rest, tough week, tough two weeks. Not an easy game, obviously, midweek and then to have to travel on a short rest in this league is not easy. And to come here after going down 1-0 as well, and being able to fight back and ultimately play really well, I thought, after the first 15-20 minutes, to come away with the win and get the three points without Leo is something that I think we can take a lot from.

“There's going to be stretches where there’s guys at national teams, where we play through those moments, where Olympics are coming up, Copa América – those types of things where we know or we've known that we have to rely on the whole squad.”

Miami's depth shines

Miami had gone winless in their previous seven games without Messi, and resurgent D.C. were eager to use La Rosanegra as a measuring stick for their own rebuilding project under Troy Lesesne. But on this occasion, they had no answer for the Herons’ strength in depth.

Handed just his second start of the season, Campana scored Miami’s opener, then assisted on their second after Suárez came off the bench to play the super-sub role to perfection; the Uruguayan legend beat Alex Bono twice with savvy finishes. Meanwhile, Sergio Busquets and Federico Redondo continued to consolidate their sturdy partnership at the base of midfield, finding the game and turning the screws after United’s early first-half dominance.

This is exactly the sort of result IMCF need if they hope to successfully weather the inevitable periods wherein Messi and other stars will be unavailable, whether due to injury, rest or international duty during this summer’s major tournaments.

“We know how important Leo is to the team, what he is and what he represents within us. We probably really can't count on him all the time and we will have to take charge,” said Campana.

“Lucho [Suárez] is obviously a high-ranking player, as seen in the games he’s started in the league – scoring goals, enjoying what he knew how to do best. It makes me happy to see him score and enjoy himself here with Messi, with his friends and to know that he is happy.”

"The Suárez we've known"

Suárez’s embrace of the game-changing substitute role pointed to head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s ability to juggle egos, playing time, load management, tactics and the other particular nuances of steering Miami along this fairly unprecedented project.

“One of the coach's tasks is to convince the players when to stop, when to allow themselves a break. Luis had played the previous game; he understood that it was a good possibility to come in as a refresher,” said Martino in Spanish postgame.

“With Luis, this is a similar situation to Leo, Busi, Jordi,” added the coach about the enduring excellence of his “Fab Four” superstars. “It is something he has done throughout his career. We had talked that he was going to have half an hour and he defined the game for us. For us, he is a fundamental actor.”

With 4g/3a in MLS play and another 2g/2a in CCC, Suárez now tops both the club’s and league’s scoring and assists charts, rendering the early-season chatter about his age and physical limitations increasingly absurd in retrospect.

Gressel grinned when the second-guessing of “El Pistolero” and his 37-year-old legs was mentioned on Saturday.

“It was perfect. It was perfect. Because look at him now,” said the German-American utility man. "He’s getting more comfortable. I think it's something that you can't just write off, in a sense, where you can't just be coming into a new team and a new club, a new city for the family, everything.

"It takes a little bit of time and that happened for him, that happened for me, those things just are just normal. And for him to be called out a little bit, I think helped him to kind of get that edge where now he's clinical and he's the Suárez we’ve known, so he can come in and change the game like he did today for us.”

Miami show marches on

The fact Suárez drew as many cheers as jeers from the crowd along the way was a reminder that he’s a global figure in his own right, which poses yet another challenge for Miami’s opponents to reckon with.

“Clearly this was a different match, because it’s more of an international brand you're going against,” said Lesesne, who admitted that while his side took a deserving lead via a 14th-minute Jared Stroud thunderbolt, they fell well short of what was required to take points.

“Regardless of [whether] Messi’s here or not, Inter Miami has so many big names, so that’s exciting. But probably more important than that is how our supporters tried to combat that; they were trying to make as much noise as possible to not let Inter Miami feel like they were the ones that were dictating the atmosphere at Audi Field. And that to me is special, that means they care about our club in a completely different way.”

Said Gressel of the warm welcome IMCF received on this visit to his former club, where he played from 2020-22: “It's definitely different. In this league, I've never really experienced it that way. Obviously, it's nice as an away team to not have the whole stadium against you. So in that sense, it makes it maybe a little bit easier. But yeah, it's just kind of what it is.”

Notably, Messi was still part of the conversation in absentia. Multiple reporters pressed Martino for further details about the “overload” in his right leg that led to an early exit from Wednesday’s CCC win, wondering whether it could affect the GOAT’s availability for Argentina’s upcoming international friendlies in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

“Messi's injury must be dealt with week by week, and we will evaluate it. What is clear is that there is a goal with him, which is to play in the Concacaf quarterfinals [vs. CF Monterrey on April 3 and 10],” said Martino, himself a former Argentina manager.

“He has a muscle injury. The selection issue is for the people of the national team to talk about.”