FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Inter Miami failed to score for the first time since Lionel Messi joined the team, playing a scoreless draw with Nashville on Wednesday night.
Messi failed to convert two free kick attempts in his first Major League Soccer match at home, and it was the first time during his Inter Miami tenure that he was kept off the score sheet.
Inter Miami still earned a point in the standings as it looks to make a late-season playoff push. Miami entered the game 11 points shy of the MLS playoff line and needing to move up from 14th to ninth place to make the playoffs with 11 regular-season matches left.
Miami had won its previous nine matches as Messi's addition gave the team an immediate boost. He has scored 11 goals, including three multi-goal performances.
Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said despite its success, the team is still gelling after undergoing so many changes over the past two months.
Miami hired Martino in June, weeks after firing Phil Neville. Miami had the worst record of the 15 Eastern Conference teams at the time, but with Messi won all seven of its Leagues Cup matches and its U.S. Open Cup semifinal match. Since Messi's arrival, the club also signed his former Barcelona teammates, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
“We really haven't had a full week working with this team,” Martino said. “Even with the evolution of this team through Leagues Cup and Open Cup, the fact that we play every four days hasn't allowed us the enough time, the necessary time, to train and continue building this group. But what we've been able to do is correct through videos and see the improvements through the games.”
Messi started the game Wednesday along with Busquets after the two entered Miami's previous match against the New York Red Bulls in the 60th minute.
Miami had no shots on goal Wednesday through the first 60 minutes as the team struggled to break through Nashville's defense.
Messi attempted a free kick in the 61st minute after drawing a foul on Nashville's Dax McCarty, but the shot to the bottom-left corner was stopped by Elliot Panicco.
Still, Inter Miami fans took out their phones to record the free kick, just in case the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner delivered another goal similar to the one in his debut — when he scored in the 94th minute to give Miami a win over Mexico's Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup opener.
Nashville's Hany Mukhtar had a goal erased by an offside call in the 69th minute.
Messi got another chance in the 83rd minute, but the shot bounced off the wall of defenders.
“They sat back with nine, 10 guys at a time," said Miami's Kamal Miller, who made several plays throughout the match. “Pretty frustrating, but we have to get used to it. That's probably what most teams are going to do against us now.”
Martino echoed those statements postgame, pointing to Nashville's defense as the difference in the game.
“I think when you put many players close to your own goal, normally you’re going to have a good chance at keeping a clean sheet," Martino said.
With Nashville packed in near the goal, Miller said it was tough to get Messi the same looks he'd been getting before. He added that the team can't leave it all up to Messi, especially if Nashville provided a successful defensive blueprint for Inter Miami's future opponents to follow.
“It's really the first time a team did that to us so blatantly,” Miller said. “We're going to look back at the film, and I'm sure the coaching staff is going to come up with ways for us to break the other team down. I think the basic answer is just moving the ball faster.”
The two teams met 10 days ago in the Leagues Cup final. Messi scored early in regulation and converted the first shot in penalty kicks, and Miami won after an 11-round penalty kicks shootout for its first ever trophy.
Messi and Inter Miami players posed with co-owner Jorge Mas on the field Wednesday with the Leagues Cup trophy for the first time in front of their home fans.