Atlanta United’s Leagues Cup debut couldn’t come in a more chaotic fashion, at least in terms of off-field storylines. Josef Martinez and Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino have been reunited, but this time it’s at Inter Miami alongside a certain Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets. Messi may be in line for his first start for Miami against one of his fellow 2022 World Cup winners and the future of the Argentinian national team, Thiago Almada. It won’t be easy for the on-field action to match up to the narratives, however, as both teams enter on shaky ground soccer-wise.
Though Miami did win its Leagues Cup opener against Cruz Azul thanks to a 94th-minute Messi freekick golazo, it was far from a performance to be proud of from the Herons who could easily have lost if not for Cruz Azul being, well, Cruz Azul. That was Miami’s first win in 11 games and before Messi’s entrance in the 52nd minute, the old problems that have Miami rooted to the bottom of MLS were the main theme of the game. Tata, who lost his debut to Saint Louis 3-0, has yet to turn Miami around and somehow instill an identity into the team with 18 points in 22 MLS games. Messi obviously took the Herons to another level in attack but he still may not be ready to start by Tuesday, while Sergio Busquets added a boatload of technical skill to Miami’s previously-dreadful midfield but can only do so much at 35. Jordi Alba and a handful of South American youngsters will be in Fort Lauderdale before too long, but until then Miami will be relying on Messi’s magic to pick up results - not a bad strategy, but at 26, he can only play so many minutes. Of course, that may not have any effect on Tuesday’s result. After all, Atlanta lost to this Miami side 2-1 back in May and that was with Messi nowhere to be seen.
Atlanta United’s recent MLS play has been as consistently inconsistent as ever, with the Five Stripes going from back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Montreal to losses against New England and Orlando. Nonetheless, thanks to the rest of the conference’s mediocrity Atlanta remains 7th but the very difficult schedule coming up after the Leagues Cup break doesn’t bode well for Gonzalo Pineda’s side. Speaking of the Leagues Cup, it’s probably Atlanta’s best chance at a trophy this season (which doesn’t say much) but the lack of transfers so far will make even a run in this tournament a tough ask. Tristan Muyumba will be available after getting his VISA, but any more weighty moves will come too late to make an impact until MLS returns. The Five Stripes still have a good shot at getting out of the group stage, though. The top two between Miami, Cruz Azul, and Atlanta advance, with any draw going to penalties to award one extra point to the winner of t he shootout. A win in either of Atlanta’s next two would more or less book a Round of 16 appearance, and how better to get three points than rain on Miami’s Messi parade?
Atlanta trails the all-time series 3W-3D-4L, including a win for Miami back in May thanks to a Josef brace.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Inter Miami 2-2 Atlanta United (Miami wins the shootout)
We can just about pen in a Josef goal due to the Law of the Ex and if Messi gets on the field the odds are he’ll score too, but MLS All-Stars Thiago Almada and Giorgos Giakoumakis will answer back for Atlanta and keep things level, although Miami will claim the additional point in penalties.