With Messi injured, Inter Miami’s road show becomes the Luis Suarez show in DC

By | March 17, 2024

WASHINGTON — Worshipers streamed down South Capitol Street, past bootleggers selling pink clothing, toward a traveling circus whose headliner, Lionel Messi, never showed up.

They meandered toward Audi Field on a heavenly Saturday afternoon, through territory typically belonging to DC United. They wore No. 10 jerseys – some pink, some albicelestesome blaugranaall accompanied by a legendary surname.

They had paid hundreds of dollars to attend the Messi roadshow. They were mostly, but not entirely aware, that Messi had suffered a hamstring injury and stayed home. Nevertheless, they weaved their way through street vendors hawking $40 Inter Miami shirts and $25 bucket hats, some advertising them with a single song-like word. “Messi Messi Messi Messi Messiiii,” crowed a salesman.

The fans queued up two hours before kick-off. Once inside, some gathered in the Audi Field concourse and craned their necks to get a view of the tunnel from which players would emerge. “Have you seen Messi?” a hopeful father asked excitedly of the young boy sitting on his shoulders as 22 mortals marched onto the field.

Others, however, had reimagined the pilgrimage.

Sure, the star was back in South Florida, but still, “we’re definitely going to see world-class people playing,” a young teenager in an Argentina Messi shirt told his father on the way to the match.

And sure enough, about three hours later, Luis Suarez appeared on the podium.

Neither Suarez nor Jordi Alba started Saturday’s MLS match at DC United. They watched a relatively boring first half that ended 1-1. Then, early in the second, they trotted to the corner flag to warm up — and some adoring fans followed, gathering behind a field-level railing about twenty feet away.

They waved at Suarez and shouted his name: “Luis!” “Lucho!” – while the second half droned on over his left shoulder.

They stopped to take photos and videos as two helpless stadium ushers begged them to clear the road. “You’re blocking the stairs!” someone said with a hint of annoyance and a bit of force. “One photo and then you have to go!”

They roared when Suarez ran back down the touchline to join the fray in the 62nd minute.

Thousands of the 19,365 in attendance erupted when he put Inter Miami ahead ten minutes later.

And then they danced joyfully as Suarez did what he has done better than anyone during his two decades in professional football. He wasted a touch, but then slipped away from the DC United defenders and turned a broken play into an inventive goal.

“Suaaaarez,” some fans started chanting. “Suaaaarez!”

They had come to see one legend of the game; instead they saw another. They saw a 37-year-old mad scientist whose body aches, but whose evil genius blossoms. Suarez leads Major League Soccer for four weeks in both goals and assists. He might be the second greatest player MLS has ever seen.

He is, in a sense, an afterthought at Inter Miami, on this unprecedented super team. That is the seriousness of Messi. Such is the GOAT’s begrudging ability to monopolize the spotlight.

But with Messi 900 miles away, Suarez intervened. He led Inter to a 3-1 victory on Sunday, their first victory in the last eight games without Messi. He wasn’t individually dominant, but his presence alone brought a deadlocked game to life.

“I mean, you know the quality he has,” Miami midfielder Julian Gressel said, chuckling slightly. “In that sense, you can always feel a little burst of energy when a player of his quality comes on [as a sub].”

A fan wearing a Lionel Messi jersey watches the second half of an MLS soccer match between DC United and Inter Miami at Audi Field, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)A fan wearing a Lionel Messi jersey watches the second half of an MLS soccer match between DC United and Inter Miami at Audi Field, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

A fan wearing a Lionel Messi jersey watches the second half of an MLS soccer match between DC United and Inter Miami at Audi Field in Washington on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

His teammates also felt the energy flowing from the crowd onto the field. There were thousands of DC United fans, but also thousands of new Inter Miami supporters. They were beaten by Messi, of course, but they created a unique atmosphere even in Messi’s absence. Gressel only really noticed them in the 90th minute, when DC defender Pedro Santos received a red card. “I think half the stadium was cheering,” Gressel said. “I was like, ‘Okay!’” He smiled.

And their hero, at least for an afternoon, was Suarez.

He was the one cameras found at the final whistle.

He was the first wanted by DC United youngster Kristian Fletcher for one cherished jersey swap.

He was the one accompanied by Messi bodyguard Yassine Chueko as the Inter Miami players strolled to their team bus, with three points in their pockets.

Just outside the loading dock, behind a somewhat transparent fence, dozens of children and parents were waiting for them. When Suarez emerged, mate in hand and wearing a backwards baseball cap, they started screaming. One person threw a Barcelona jersey over the railing, apparently in a desperate attempt to get an autograph.

Messi’s absence was all but forgotten.

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