Messi scores in regulation, penalties to lead Inter Miami past Nashville in Leagues Cup final

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Lionel Messi scored early in regulation and converted the first shot in penalty kicks as Inter Miami beat Nashville SC 10-9 on penalties in the Leagues Cup final on Saturday night.

Messi scored midway through the first half, his 10th goal in seven games since joining Inter Miami — all in the Leagues Cup competition — as his new team claimed its first trophy.

Messi also opened the penalties by converting his shot. The penalty kicks ended in the 11th round in a showdown between the goalkeepers. Drake Callender scored his penalty for Miami and then made the title-clinching stop on a shot by Nashville’s Elliot Pannico.

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Miami players hoisted Messi on their shoulders and had an extended celebration on the field long after the trophies had been handed out.

Miami Coach Tata Martino credited the new group of newcomers like Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba, quickly gelling with the team.

“We had to incorporate a lot of new players but I’m very impressed how it came together,” Martino said through a translator.

“I remember the first days (in charge),” Martino continued. “We needed to do more trainings to give shape to the team and I was thinking, how convenient it is to move on in this tournament because we can take advantage of this month to play more. But after this month, we are champions”

Martino’s postgame press conference ended when Miami players burst into the room, singing and spraying champagne on the coach. But the team won’t have long to celebrate. Miami faces Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday.

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Nashville coach Gary Smith tipped his hat to Messi.

“You’re looking at a game with the greatest player on the planet possibly being the difference in what went on today,” Smith said.

Callender was proud of the role he played in helping Inter Miami claim the tourney crown.

“It’s a huge honor to play a role in our first win in a final,” Callender said. “It’s pretty surreal. Very emotional. This team works so hard day-in, day-out to be able to perform like this on a night like this. And to have it come down to the very end, it was amazing to see the grit, just the belief of what we’re capable of. It’s something special and I’m just blessed to be a part of it.”

Callender said he tried to stay as calm as possible through the numerous kicks.

“I just had to stay focused, breathe through it, stay as calm as possible,” he said. “I mean, this atmosphere here tonight is electric. So I embraced the moment and I just believed in the work that I put in and the repetitions I put in leading up to that moment and it just ended up going our way.”

Messi opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. The ball landed at his feet after a pass from teammate Robert Taylor was blocked. Messi dribbled past Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman and unleashed a bending shot from just outside the penalty box into the top left corner of the goal. A diving Panicco had no chance at playing the ball.

“It’s one of those things where the bounces don’t go your way and his ability to put it in the top corner is what makes him a special player,” Zimmerman said. “No mistakes were made on that play. It was a good challenge and a little unfortunate bounce there.”

Messi wasn’t particularly influential before he scored the goal, and the crowd showered him with boos each time he touched the ball. But the stadium erupted in cheers when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner who led Argentina to the World Cup crown last year scored.

Nashville tied the game in the 56th minute when Fafa Picault’s header off a corner kick ricocheted off Miami’s Benjamin Cremaschi and into the net off goalkeeper Callender.

Messi had a shot from the area he had scored from earlier in the 71st minute, but hit the post as the teams played to a 1-1 draw in regulation.

Miami striker Leonardo Campana had a chance to win the game in the last play in regulation, but his sliding shot on an open goal hit the post. Messi held his head in his hands when the ball trickled out of play.

Messi mania had gripped Music City after Nashville SC advanced to the final against Miami with a win against Monterrey of the Mexican league on Tuesday. Ticket prices skyrocketed after they went on sale the following day but eased somewhat in the days before the game. The cheapest seats still cost several hundred dollars. A capacity crowd of 30,109 filled Geodis Park.

Nashville native Reese Witherspoon brought out the game ball and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo took some shots on goal before the game. Both are minority owners of Nashville SC.

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