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Came, saw, conquered: Lionel Messi adds Kansas City to his list

In Sports
April 14, 2024

KANSAS CITY, MO — Have you seen Lionel Messi play live and in person yet? You need to.

Even when he’s busy beating your hometown team — as he did with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 victory over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday — you can’t help but watch his every move, laugh and just shrug. What? You have a plan to stop him? Okay.

The win puts Inter Miami atop the table as he dives head-first into his first full season in MLS, touring the country and continent with three of his longtime Barcelona teammates and close friends. Next stop: KC. My hometown in the Midwest.

Through the ups and downs, a soccer city is born

The last time Sporting Kansas City — ahem, the Kansas City Wizards — played here, back in the summer of 2010, 52,424 turned up at Arrowhead Stadium for a friendly against Manchester United. That day played no small part in reviving and relaunching one of MLS’s original organizations.

It was only five years earlier that the sport wasn’t long for this city, without a viable ownership group and the team nearly sold and moved to Rochester, New York. Now, the sport is virtually inescapable in this city, where Sporting KC play in front of sold-out crowds inside their own stadium week in and week out after narrowly surviving MLS’s contraction and relocation era; where the NWSL’s Kansas City Current opened their own downtown stadium just last month; where Copa America 2024 and the 2026 World Cup will be played. Kansas City now has a legitimate claim to being “Soccer City USA” and few can argue with it.

It wasn’t always like this. Trust me. I was there. Three years before the Man United friendly, the Wizards’ average attendance was 11,586 (roughly 15 percent capacity) during their final season at Arrowhead, before they moved to an independent league baseball stadium for three years. Somehow, it was an improvement. Hardly a scene befitting the greatest player of all time, is it?

But, Arrowhead is where the Wizards — ahem, the Wiz — played MLS’s inaugural game back in 1996. This league and this team have been around long enough to have real “I remember when” history. Back then, the phrase “American soccer culture” hadn’t yet been typed on the Internet, because American soccer culture didn’t exist. 28 years (to the day) and a couple of name changes later, American soccer culture is alive and very well in the American heartland.

Lionel Messi takes over, leads Inter Miami past Sporting KC

There was even a moment on Saturday when Messi took notice. Sure, 72,610 (95 percent capacity) packed the home of the two-time reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs to feast their eyes upon Messi, but he was just one of them, even if only briefly, as Sporting KC winger Erik Thommy struck the game’s first goal from the edge of the box in the 6th minute.

As a majority pro-Sporting KC crowd (though there were thousands of pink and Albiceleste no. 10 shirts as well) roared to life, Messi looked to the upper tiers of Arrowhead and took in the scene. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting such a response in middle America — flyover country — and perhaps it spurred on what would come next.

12 minutes later, Inter Miami were level thanks to a brilliant pass and assist that only Messi and teammate Diego Gomez could see. When Messi played the ball in behind Sporting’s defense, there wasn’t a black shirt in sight. “They aren’t quite on the same page early in the season,” I, someone who should have known better, thought. Don’t doubt the genius.

Also, maybe don’t give him five yards of space when he’s 30 yards from goal, or he’s liable to take two silky touches and stick it in the top corner in the blink of an eye. What a thing to see play out right in front of your eyes. If this is what he’s capable of at 36 years old, what must it have been to witness 26-year-old Messi?

Messi mania, or a traveling circus? Maybe a bit of both?

This sport has a way of making this great big world feel not quite so big sometimes. Case in point: Here’s Messi, the G.O.A.T of G.O.A.Ts, putting on this effortless display of class and quality, and he’s doing it five minutes from where I grew up. I’d tell you to pinch me, but I don’t want to wake up if I dreamt it all.

Luis Suarez went on to score the winner after Thommy hammered a volley home for his second goal not long after Messi’s stunner, but it was (fittingly and predictably) the Messi show from start to finish. He assisted, he scored, he posed for selfies with multiple pitch invaders in between Inter Miami’s frequent forays forward during the second half, taking it all in stride as if any of it was normal. That this game being played here, in this stadium, in front of all of these people, wasn’t simply unimaginable 15, 10, maybe even five years ago. But, it speaks to the incredible growth of MLS in recent times — with Kansas City a shining example — that Messi has chosen to write the final chapter of his legendary career here.

This is all normal for him, of course — just another stroll and kick-around in the park on a Saturday night — but even the best actors and actresses can’t perform without a proper backdrop, and Kansas City more than did its part, providing just that. Regrettably for the home fans, Messi turned in his standard star performance and walked out with all three points. Join the club.

Saturday night was a full-circle moment for the few thousand who were around in those early days; a spectacle for the tens of thousands who fulfilled a decade-long dream to see the best to ever do it with their own eyes; an unforgettable experience that’ll probably only come along once this lifetime for most of us. What a superpower.

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