National Writer: Charles Boehm

Real Salt Lake sniff out Inter Miami weak spots: "They can make mistakes as well"


Victors on the night, blessed with the GOAT, but not exactly a Goliath – not yet, at least.

That was a leading takeaway for several onlookers at Chase Stadium who were not wearing Inter Miami’s pink and black on Wednesday evening, as Lionel Messi and the Herons beat Real Salt Lake, 2-0, but showed a blemish or two as the 2024 MLS season began.

Despite a typically otherworldly display from Messi, the hosts flagged markedly down the stretch as the Claret-and-Cobalt overcame a timid first-half performance to produce a more assertive mentality that left Miami scrambling for long spans of the second stanza, coughing up possession cheaply and repeatedly as Messi and Luis Suárez spectated from the halfway stripe.

In the end, Pablo Mastroeni’s side were let down only by their wastefulness in front of Drake Callender’s goal, as they directed just two of their 16 shots on target despite being repeatedly gifted promising scenarios by IMCF turnovers.

“I think it came down to being aggressive in the press. Once we committed together, they were giving us the ball. So I think it was just being committed and pressing together,” said RSL wunderkind Diego Luna ruefully postgame.

“In the final third, it really just comes down to being clinical. I think we missed three or four simple chances where they're giving us chances.”

The course of the evening offered reminders of the psychological advantage provided by the superlative skill and fame of Messi, Suárez and their old friends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, perhaps even before a ball has even been kicked.

Salt Lake struggled to maintain composure and organization in the opening stages, leaked a fairly soft goal when Zac MacMath allowed Robert Taylor’s shot to slip underneath him – yet still could have clawed back a point had they made better use of their half-hour of dominance after the break.

“It's only natural, right? We have a relatively young group, you're coming to Miami, you're playing against Messi and Suárez, Busquets and Alba, guys that they probably grew up watching. And so it's only human to have these types of nerves,” said Mastroeni, who began his professional playing career at Lockhart Stadium, which once sat on the same Fort Lauderdale site as IMCF’s current home base, a quarter-century ago with the Miami Fusion.

“What you realize is that once you engage with an intense mindset, they can make mistakes as well. And I think it's when you realize that they are human that you end up feeling like you belong. So I think it was a natural kind of reaction to the moment and it was big in opening the season, first game in Major League Soccer, there's a lot of eyes on there, nationally, globally. So it was a big moment, but I think once we got over that hump, we started to play the kind of football we’re capable of.”

That sense that Miami’s defensive fragility can be exposed and exploited was not just a matter of sour grapes on the part of the visitors. Towards the end of the broadcast, MLS Season Pass analyst Taylor Twellman reckoned that other Eastern Conference title contenders will take real encouragement from the Herons’ spottiness.

“I think the shine’s off the rose. I don't know if many teams are going to watch the game tonight and say, ‘there is no way we can compete and beat Inter Miami,’ with\] the amount of opportunities that Real Salt Lake had tonight,” said the former [New England Revolution strike star.

“Your eye test will tell you that you can get after Inter Miami. So the Orlando Citys, the Cincinnatis, the Columbuses, the New England, the teams in the East are going to be looking at this and say, ‘If we're up for it athletically and we're on point to really put pressure on Inter Miami, we can make things tough for this team, especially with the congested schedule for them early on in the year.’”

Next up for Inter Miami: a cross-country trip to face the LA Galaxy on Sunday evening (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), continuing a stretch of eight all-competition matches in just over four weeks to start the year.