Messi stars, but can Inter Miami keep up the pace in MLS?

Messi, Inter Miami start season off with a victory (1:20)

Lionel Messi picks up an assist as Inter Miami opens their season with a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. (1:20)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Late in the first half of Inter Miami's 2-0 win against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, Lionel Messi found himself on the receiving end of a poor clearance from RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath. With MacMath scrambling back toward his net from the edge of the box, Messi collected the ball about 7 yards outside the box and shaded toward the right side.

The volume inside the stadium quickly rose, as did most of the fans who weren't already on their feet. There was a collective sense of anticipation that a moment of magic was about to be conjured.

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Messi cut the ball back to his preferred left but didn't have a shooting angle near the top of the box. He had to keep dribbling, except he ran into a dead end: RSL defenders on each side of him and another, Andrew Brody, laying on the ground in pain in front of him.

Messi dribbles over defender down on pitch

Lionel Messi is able to get a shot off even after dribbling over a defender who is down on the pitch.

So, naturally, Messi calmly lifted the ball over Brody's sprawled out body and got off a shot from inside the box. It was blocked but the sequence encapsulated what makes him so special: At any given time, he might pull off something few people who have ever played the game would have the audacity to attempt.

After the referee stopped the game to allow Brody medical attention, the Apple TV+ broadcast cut to a shot of Messi wearing a joyful smirk on his face. So close. "I saw [Messi] very free, very precise," Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said. "A lot of speed. He has something that doesn't happen with other players around the world. He can take a ball even very far from the opponent's goal and generate a feeling that the ball will end up in a goal-scoring opportunity."

With the offseason addition of 37-year-old Uruguay striker Luis Suárez, who partnered Messi for six years at Barcelona and spent last season at Gremio in Brazil, there are clear expectations in South Florida for the team to be one of the most prolific scoring teams in MLS history.

Wednesday's performance, however, left a lot to be desired.

Inter Miami was in complete control for most of the first half, but even so, that dominance didn't result in many truly dangerous chances. Robert Taylor was played into space by Messi to score the opening goal in the 39th minute, but it was a shot that goalkeeper MacMath should have stopped with relative ease.

Messi threads a pass to Robert Taylor for Inter Miami's opening goal

Inter Miami takes a 1-0 lead in the first half as Lionel Messi finds Robert Taylor, who squeaks a shot past the keeper for a goal.

And in the second half, Miami looked tired. Perhaps that was partially a result of the 24,000 miles the team clocked traveling around the world in its preseason tour. Some of it might just be early-season fitness or even RSL growing into the game after being initially intimidated by Messi and his "Superstar Friends," which include former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets (35) and Jordi Alba (34) along with Suarez.

Whatever the reason, Miami's ability to maintain a high level of intensity late in games is a valid reason for concern, especially considering that Messi and Suarez's reluctance to defend will require even more effort from the rest of the team. For all the star power the team has, Martino is going to need to rely heavily on his bench to see games out.

"We need to find that when we do substitutions, the team's performance has to remain the same," Martino said after the game. "That wasn't the case today, because the team did not worsen because of the substitutions, but because we started the second half badly and we made many mistakes coming out of the back, but having a full roster always generates another sort of confidence for absolutely everything."

Even after RSL failed to capitalize on several careless Miami giveaways, there was still a sense for large stretches of the second half that an equalizing goal was coming. Miami was cooked and RSL remained on the front foot.

But, of course, there's always the magic to fall back on.

Diego Gomez puts game away for Inter Miami with late goal

Inter Miami works it beautifully as Luis Suarez finds Diego Gomez for a late Inter Miami goal and a 2-0 lead.

In the 83rd minute, Messi received a pass just over the midfield line, dribbled outside the arc of the penalty box, passed to Suarez, who found Diego Gómez on his first touch to seal the win with a second goal.

For Martino, the run Messi was able to make -- that deep in the game -- was instructive.

"To play the one-two that he played at the end dribbling with his left, driving through the right side, very close to the end of the match after such an exhausting match," Martino said. "It's evident that he is well, that he is motivated and that he feels good physically."

It's an encouraging observation from Martino because fitness and motivation always figured to be the only things that could potentially hold Messi back in MLS. If he's motivated and healthy, Inter Miami will remain appointment viewing.