Lionel Messi transforms L.A. into a star-studded celebration of soccer

Carson, California February 25, 2024-Inter Miami's Lionel Messi shoots and scores.
Inter Miami star Lionel Messi, left, shoots and scores in front of Galaxy defender Martin Caceres during stoppage time to force a 1-1 tie Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Lionel Messi entered Dignity Health Sports Park through the loading dock in the southeast corner so he didn’t see the larger-than-life statue of his boss, David Beckham, on the other side of the stadium.

But certainly he knows about the statue and why it’s there.

Dignity Health Sports Park might not be the House that Beckham built, but it’s the one he once filled. Average attendance rose 29%, to 26,009 — at the venue known then as the Home Depot Center — in Beckham’s first full season with the Galaxy. By this final season, leaguewide attendance was up 18%, the MLS salary structure had changed and the introduction of designated players — allowed under the Beckham Rule — paved the way for dozens of big-name players to follow, from Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Giorgio Chiellini.

Read more: How David Beckham set the MLS foundation for Lionel Messi. 'The Messi effect is dramatic'

That was the start of the journey that led to Sunday, when Beckham, now co-owner of Inter Miami, returned to Carson for the first time with his club, bringing Messi, arguably the greatest player in soccer history, with him.

The record crowd of 27,642 that came to see him packed the grass berm behind the north goal and filled temporary bleachers near the south goal. Cocktail tables were set up behind the Miami bench for the most well-heeled supporters during warmups, helping the Galaxy break the record for the highest-grossing game in stadium history.

The team handed out more than 200 media credentials, four times the usual amount, and still couldn’t accommodate everybody who wanted one.

Amid all the hoopla, the result almost didn’t matter, but the game ended in a 1-1 draw, with Messi scoring the tying goal from his knees in the second minute of stoppage time. Dejan Joveljic scored the Galaxy’s only goal in the 75th minute.

“Seeing a crowd here that was packing the stadium 45 minutes before game time is emotional. It sort of represents everything that we wanted this sport to be,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “We've all learned that it's never about any one player. But we should all cherish the great experiences when legends come into your league.

“With David, this is very much about where we were in 2007. And where we are today.”

Fans take pictures and video of Miami's Lionel Messi before a corner kick against the Galaxy.
Fans take pictures and video of Miami's Lionel Messi before a corner kick against the Galaxy on Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The game was the Galaxy’s season opener, but the atmosphere was more South Beach party than MLS match, with almost as many fans decked out in Barbie-pink Inter Miami jerseys or the blue-striped shirts of Argentina, which Messi carried to a World Cup victory in 2022, as in Galaxy white.

It was a celebration of soccer, a fiesta of football.

Southern Californians can be blasé about celebrity; this is Hollywood, after all. But Messi, like Beckham, before him is different, the best of the best in a sport the U.S. has yet to pull to its bosom. As a result, the grandstands almost matched the field for star power, with actors Halle Berry, Hillary Duff and Edward Norton, rapper Lil Wayne and athletes Novak Djokovic, Puka Nacua, Christen Press, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi among those on hand.

“These are cool games to play. There's a lot of big-time players,” Galaxy keeper John McCarthy said. “It was an awesome environment. It's a game you want to play in and be a part of.”

“Messi,” he added “is good.”

And now that he has everyone’s attention, the challenge for MLS is to keep it.

Inter Miami, in its fifth MLS season, has never finished with a winning record, but it starts this season not only with Messi, but with three of his former Barcelona teammates in Jordi Alba, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets. The quartet have combined for two World Cup wins, 32 league titles and nine UEFA Champions League crowns. No other MLS team has come close to such a pedigree.

The Galaxy, five-time league champions, are rebuilding, starting six players Sunday who weren’t on the roster at the start of last season. One of those, speedy Ghanaian winger Joseph Paintsil, had an impressive debut, torching the left side of Miami’s defense all night and taking a team-high seven shots in 86 minutes.

And it was almost good enough for a victory.

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi takes a shot on goal in front of Galaxy defender Martin Caceres during the first half Sunday.
Inter Miami's Lionel Messi takes a shot on goal in front of Galaxy defender Martin Caceres during the first half Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Joveljic put the Galaxy in front with 15 minutes left in regulation. After Miami keeper Drake Callender stopped a shot from playmaker Riqui Puig, the rebound dropped at the feet of Mark Delgado, and with the Miami keeper on the ground, Delgado fed Joveljic on the other side of the box for an easy tap-in.

The goal had to withstand a lengthy VAR check but was allowed.

Gabriele Ciampi, a replacement for the regular MLS officials who have been locked out, didn’t get a chance to review a call he made 13 minutes later and that wound up costing the Galaxy a win. Normally a USL League One official, Ciampi, working his second MLS game in as many days, struggled all night for control of the match, and in the 88th minute he gave Delgado a second yellow card for tripping Busquets, though replays showed Delgado never touched the Miami defender.

Delgado’s first yellow card was for time wasting after he kicked a ball out of bounds.

“Really, really soft,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said of the cautions. “You don't want to give Messi any more space than is already out there.”

But that’s exactly what happened when Delgado exited. With the Galaxy down to 10 players, Messi was able to run on to a poor pass from Puig and then, with room to operate, worked a pair of give-and-goes with Alba that ended with Messi sliding to his knees after a left-footed touch to score from the center of the box.

Galaxy goalie John McCarthy walks back toward the goal as Inter Miami players celebrate Lionel Messi's stoppage-time goal.
Galaxy goalie John McCarthy walks back toward the goal as Inter Miami players celebrate Lionel Messi's stoppage-time goal. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was a classic case of Messi making something out of nothing and it brought the crowd, the largest for a regular-season game at DHSP to its feet. The Galaxy were the home team but many fans had come to see Messi and he didn’t disappoint.

“One day, every night is going to be like this,” Vanney said. “It's a spectacle of sorts. The league just has to keep growing right? You’ve got to keep getting top players because that's what people want to see. The quality of soccer continues to get better. This is a sign that progress is being made.

“The game that you saw tonight [was] partly because of the atmosphere that's created by everything that's going on, I can't tell you how long, but I feel like we're moving in that direction. I hope these nights continue to come.”

What Beckham started, Messi is continuing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.