Messi, Inter Miami bring historic spectacle to Arrowhead vs Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Through the years, Kansas City has seen several historic athletes in a variety of sports.

All-time great soccer player Pelé played in an exhibition game in Kansas City in 1968. NBA great LeBron James brought the Miami Heat to play at the Sprint Center (now known as T-Mobile Center) several times including in 2010 against another young NBA player who turned out to be a great in Kevin Durant who was with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And on the anniversary of the first-ever Kansas City Wizards match on April 13, 1996, arguably the best soccer player of all-time, Lionel Messi, and his Inter Miami squad rolled into Arrowhead Stadium and beat the Wizards, who are now Sporting Kansas City, 3-2.

Members of that team were also in attendance and honored before the match.

Soccer fans fill Arrowhead to watch Sporting KC take on Messi, Inter Miami

The build-up slowly grew as the week progressed with Messi returning from a hamstring injury on April 6 against the Colorado Rapids and scoring a goal 13 minutes into a second-half sub.

Sporting head coach Peter Vermes scouted Messi when Messi was 17 years old and knew that if the striker was healthy, he would play the whole match.

Miami lost in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup to Monterrey 5-1 on aggregate on Wednesday night and Messi played the whole 95 minutes of the match notching an assist. There was no shock when Messi was named a starter before the highly anticipated match.

Security at a soccer match at Arrowhead was exponentially higher than any Kansas City Chiefs game even though two pitch invaders interrupted the match. The first invader looked like a young boy who got his selfie with Messi before he was taken off. Messi’s personal security guard tackled the second invader before he got his hug.

Star Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach were all on the sidelines watching Messi warm up.

Mahomes even got to shake his hand and wish him luck before the match.

SKC Cauldron prepares for big match vs Messi and Inter Miami

The match started with a bang when midfielder Erik Thommy used a counterattack on the right side of the box to send a right-footed shot to the bottom left corner for the first goal of the match in the sixth minute.

Messi chants from throughout Arrowhead were met with boos from Sporting KC’s supporters’ section The Cauldron. Messi quickly gave the fans a sliver of his abilities with a beautiful double line-breaking pass to Diego Gomez who sent a right-footed shot past goalkeeper Tim Melia in the 18th minute to tie the match.

The usual possession-holding Sporting team switched to a 4-2-3-1 for the mighty attacking Miami. It allowed for a fast-paced transitional match that saw spectators rising out of their seats as both teams entered their respective attacking thirds and groaning at every missed shot and opportunity.

In the 51st minute, Messi gave every single person in the stadium what they came for with a left-footed goal seven yards outside of the box to give Miami a 2-1 lead.

“It’s a very good shot. I’m not taking it away but it’s also swirling wind in there which is just making it more difficult,” Melia said about Messi’s goal. Winds were up to 15 miles per hour during the match on a very windy KC Saturday that saw winds as high as 20 mph.

“It’s unfortunate but the through ball on the first one and then the shot on the second one is the reason why he is who he is and he proves it in most games. So it is what it is.”

In a crowd that saw lots of pink Miami kits for Messi and striker Luis Suárez, there were also plenty of powder blue and navy blue Sporting Kansas City kits among the 72,610 people in Arrowhead. And the Sporting fans made their presence felt throughout the match with their chants that usually fill SKC’s home stadium of Children’s Mercy Park.

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Thommy proved to be Sporting’s biggest difference maker in a match that saw their back line have fits with Miami’s attack. He recorded his second goal of the game when a corner kick bounced his way and he volleyed the ball in mid-air to spin off of the right post for the equalizer in the 58th minute.

“Had to take the risk,” Thommy said. “Off the corner, if you see the ball, like a 50-50, and then I had a good feeling. I scored the first goal so I had the confidence to be honest. I was happy to help the team. But at the end, wanted the three points and today, we get nothing.”

Against a team like Miami, tiny mistakes can be a team’s downfall. Sporting’s mistake was goalkeeper Tim Melia working their attack through their backline instead of clearing the ball into the midfield late in the match.

Melia looked to transition the game with a pass to right-back Jake Davis but Gomez stole the ball from Davis and sent a cross in the box to Luis Suárez who was wide open for the game-winning goal in the 71st minute.

“That was my fault. That’s not Jake’s fault,” Melia said. “I need to just open that up and hit it long. I can’t put Jake in that situation, that’s on me.”

“You break it down. Okay. Yeah, the ball could have gone long but he didn’t, he played it to me,” Davis said. “I could have gone long with it. I tried to, got blocked. I mean, it’s just different things that happen but we can learn from that.”

In a match that went down as the third-highest Major League Soccer crowd in history and the largest crowd for a soccer match in the state of Missouri, SKC relished the atmosphere as they tasted defeat for the second time in 2024.

“The environment was out of this world. It was fantastic,” Vermes said. “I thought the fans were tremendous in all respects.”

“Awesome environment,” Melia said. “Happy to see it wasn’t all Messi fans which was good. But disappointing. We started the game really, we kind of pulled them out of shape. And then we just kind of got beat with quality on two goals and beat ourselves on the third one.”

Vermes applauded his team’s effort but knew that one mistake could doom them against a team like Miami.

“We lost the ball three times and they just have the quality to that when you do, they can punish you.”

The Messi effect also played a big factor in the match, of course, as he recorded an assist and a goal that helped put his team over the top.

“The pass that Messi makes and then the second ball that he hits from where he hits it from. You know, I think you all would agree that you don’t see that very much in the MLS and you do when you play against them and they can punish you and that’s what they did,” Vermes said.

“Take him out of that game and it’s not a 3-2 game,” Melia said with a laugh.

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“Tough results but get to appreciate greatness,” Davis said. “This Messi guy, he’s unreal. Their whole team, just quality.”

But the game never truly got away from Sporting which Vermes applauded.

“I felt that they played very well. I think they kept their emotions in check. It’s very easy to get, you know, just caught up in the moment.

“There’s a lot of nervous energy early on, but the guys I thought, like I said, I thought their concentration was excellent.”

SKC center back Andreu Fontàs was teammates with Messi, Suárez, Miami defender Sergio Busquets and defender Jordi Alba when they all played for Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona from 2009 to 2013.

Fontàs and Busquets are close friends and he spent ample time with his old teammates after the match. Fontàs received a Messi jersey and got one for forward Johnny Russell. SKC forward Alan Pulido and defender Dany Rosero also got Messi jerseys.

“Obviously amazing,” Fontàs said, “but not the result that we wanted. It’s amazing to see the crowd, the people, but also disappointing to not get the result and the job done. That’s what we were here for.

“It’s special to play against these guys. They’re obviously world-class players.”

For a young player like Davis who has risen through Sporting’s academy to become one of their key defenders, mistakes on such a grand stage can be debilitating. But the 22-year-old has taken every mistake in his career to learn from and grow into the player he strives to be.

“Making a mistake in front of 70,000 people can really set you up to feel comfortable with making other mistakes,” he said. “So I mean, it can almost give you confidence if that’s the worst thing that’s going to happen and I think I’m going to be okay.”

One of the former Wizards that has his name plastered around Children’s Mercy Park as a Sporting Legend is defender Jimmy Conrad. Conrad is the technical director of USL League Two side San Francisco Glens as well as having his own podcast/YouTube channel.

After Messi scored, he threw a general question up in the air in the press box if it was Messi who scored the goal that had Arrowhead roaring.

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When the reply was yes, he put his head down and smiled.

“There are three guarantees in life: Death, taxes and Messi scoring,” he said.

Spectators at Arrowhead got just about everything a casual soccer fan or even a Sporting KC fan can ask for. The home team scored first and used their home crowd advantage to help them get leads while Messi chants periodically filled the stadium and everyone got to see why there is so much hype around the Argentinian striker.

Sporting’s early part of the 2024 season has been defined by not closing matches and they dropped another one to Miami. They have a 2-2-4 record and also get no time off with another highly emotional match against cross-state rival St. Louis City SC next Saturday.

But everyone at 1 Arrowhead Drive on Saturday night got to see what it’s like to watch another all-time great play at Arrowhead Stadium, who doesn’t play American football, in a match that will go down in MLS and Kansas City history.

“I think that I will appreciate more than Messi being here is that I got an opportunity to play in the Chiefs’ stadium,” Melia said. “In the team that I play on that’s been my home now for close to 10 years. Those are the things I’ll appreciate.

“Still don’t want Messi to be here,” he said with a laugh.

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