The goals were works of beauty, similar to some scored by Atlanta United in 2017 and ‘18 when it was ripping through opponents.
It was Atlanta United’s third consecutive loss across all competitions and it second 4-0 loss this season. Atlanta United had a chance to end the shutout in the 85th minute but Thiago Almada’s penalty kick was saved.
“We couldn’t capitalize in the key moments of the game,” Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “The first two goals for me, kind of mistakes in the middle that that you cannot allow to a player like Leo Messi. The fourth is the same.
“So some silly individual mistakes that we did that they capitalized and we couldn’t. I said it in Spanish but I want to repeat an English: total credit to Inter Miami they were the better team and they deserve the victory.”
Atlanta United must defeat Cruz Azul on Saturday either in regulation or in penalty kicks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to advance out of its group and into the knockout rounds of the tournament. If Atlanta United doesn’t advance, it won’t play again until it travels to Seattle when league play resumes on Aug. 20.
Pineda appeared to keep using the three-centerback formation he adopted four games ago. The trio was composed of Miles Robinson, in his first game since returning from the Gold Cup, JuanJo Purata and Luis Abram, playing in front of goalkeeper Brad Guzan. The midfield, tasked with trying to contain Messi and Sergio Busquets, were Almada, Matheus Rossetto and Santiago Sosa, with Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley as the wingbacks, Tyler Wolff as the other attacking midfielder and Giorgos Giakoumakis at striker in his first start in the past four matches.
Pineda threw a wrinkle into the formation with Abram playing as a hybrid centerback/fullback on the left and Wiley playing as a winger high up the formation. Additionally, Atlanta United, when it didn’t have the ball, pressed Miami when it had the ball in the middle third of the field.
Pineda said he played Abram as a fullback to try to deal with Messi when he would receive the ball on the right and cut in. Sosa and Rossetto, a pairing that hasn’t been as effective this season, were asked to move the ball side to side and to try to activate the team’s attacking players.
“I think in many moments we did but probably not at that rate that we wanted,” Pineda said. “And then defensively was a tough task because we knew they had Busquets, the two players in between the lines ... but then also the movement from Messi creates a lot of challenges.”
Miami’s lineup, chosen by Gerardo Martino, formerly Atlanta United’s manager in 2017 and ‘18 when it was steamrolling opponents on its way to the MLS Cup, also included former Five Stripes striker Josef Martinez.
Wiley said Atlanta United’s players were up for the match.
“As you could only imagine, you’ve come down to Miami, you know that you’ve seen the signings that they’ve made last few weeks now,” he said. “So we were excited. "
Miami quickly figured out how to beat Atlanta United’s press when Busquets passed over Atlanta United’s midfield and back line to Messi running down the left. His first shot hit the right post but he reacted first and buried his second shot to give Miami a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute.
Miami’s goal came just a few minutes after Atlanta United had a goal called back because of being offsides.
Robinson said the combination of no-goal and then allowing a goal deflated Atlanta United.
“That definitely kind of lowered our momentum,” Robinson said. “It’s a tough game. But obviously, they’ve got great players.”
Messi scored his second in the 22nd minute. Messi played Robert Taylor into space on the left. As he reached the endline, Taylor crossed the ball back toward the middle. Martinez made a feint toward the ball before allowing it to roll past him to a wide-open Messi, who had continued his run, for an easy right-footed shot just a few yards from goal.
Atlanta United’s pressure began to dissipate, affected by the lead and possibly by the 85-degree temperature.
“It was disappointing because it wasn’t just about him (Messi), it was we didn’t get close enough to anybody throughout the entire night,” Guzan said. “Busquets, Messi, you name them. We didn’t get close enough to affect passes, affect tackles, affect shots.”
Miami increased its lead to 3-0 in the 44th minute when Taylor slammed a close-range shot after being played in by Benjamin Cremaschi, who was found open at the top of the box by Messi.
In the first half, Atlanta United had the one goal called back for offsides, another shot hit the post and another shot went inches wide.
Atlanta United isn’t the only team to fail to contain Messi, who would walk or drift around the field until he would find a hole in Atlanta United’s defense, receive the ball, and go to work. It was made easier because Atlanta United would often back off Busquets, Messi’s long-time teammate at Barcelona, and allow him to dictate the game’s tempo. Wiley said there was a lot of looking over shoulders throughout the night in an attempt to find him.
“When he has time and the space, I think that was the biggest thing,” Wiley said. “He had so much time and the space. We didn’t give him that much pressure.”
Pineda subbed on Edwin Mosquera in place of Wolff and Ronald Hernandez for Purata to start the second half.
Almada started a promising attack by taking on four Miami players and then finding Wiley streaking into the 18-yard box. Wiley passed to Giakoumakis, who couldn’t put the ball into a shooting position near the top of the box.
Miami increased its lead to 4-0 on another goal by Taylor, again played in by Messi in a 2-on-2, in the 53rd minute. The play started with an Atlanta United corner kick. Miami cleared the ball to Messi, standing near the center circle. He turned and began dribbling at Hernandez as Taylor began a long sprint down the left with Rossetto vainly trying to catch him. Messi played Taylor into the 18-yard box, who buried his shot into the lower right corner.
Ozzie Alonso and Miguel Berry came on for Giakoumakis and Rossetto in the 65th minute.
The only excitement in the next 15 minutes came from a supporter who jumped over the wall on the East side of the stadium and made it all the way across the field in an attempt to reach Messi. The fan’s effort was denied by Martino and security guards.
After the game, Martinez said he felt better on Tuesday, similar to how he felt his first two seasons with Atlanta United.
“It’s very important and especially with this game, for me is one of the most important games, and I really, really enjoyed what has already changed about this team,” he said.
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0
May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3
May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3
June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0
June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1
June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2
June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0
July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0
July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1
July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0
July 29 vs. Cruz Azul in Leagues Cup, 8 p.m.
Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA