Lionel Messi makes Tata Martino look like a genius; if only Phil Neville had a GOAT

Ryan Baldi
Tata Martino and Phil Neville having differing MLS seasons.
Tata Martino and Phil Neville having differing MLS seasons.

Lionel Messi is making his manager look good, Austin are stunning the Western Conference and Phil Neville’s Portland Timbers are tumbling.


MLS Winners

Tata Martino
In an effort to write about someone other than Lionel Messi this week, let’s take a slightly bigger-picture approach and go with Inter Miami manager Tata Martino as our first winner.

But just to be clear: it really should be Messi. Again. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner scored twice and got an assist in Inter’s 4-1 victory over the lowly New England Revolution on Saturday (and even the other goal, tapped in by Benjamin Cremaschi, was a result of a parried Messi shot).

The match was played at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, in front of a club-record 65,612 crowd, an attendance figure – to go along with ticket prices – higher than the NFL side averaged last season.

Messi’s brace means he now leads the race for the Golden Boot, with nine goals form seven appearances. He also tops the assists chart, too, with seven. He became the first player in MLS history to record multiple goal contributions in five consecutive games and the first to notch 16 goal contributions in their first seven appearances of a season. Proof, if any were needed, that at 36 he’s still decent.

Maybe he will be MVP after all.

So on to Martino. The Argentinian coach came under pressure just a few weeks ago when Inter went on a run of just one win in five MLS games, while also being dumped out of the CONCACAF Champions League by Mexican side Monterrey.

Now, though, after three wins on the bounce, they are top of the Eastern Conference and leading the race for the Supporters’ Shield. Defensively there are still question marks, as evidenced by the sloppy play that led to the Revs – who were missing several players to a sickness bug – taking a shock lead after just 37 seconds. But Miami’s attacking play in New England displayed an intricacy and co-ordination that suggests a well-coached outfit.

When asked about Inter’s recent turn around, Martino pointed to their energy-sapping pre-season world tour and a spate of injuries as reasons for their dip.

“We had an atypical preseason and throughout the league and the ConcaChampions, we had some injuries,” Martino said post-match. “We settled in with the available players and the match with Kansas was key, because we were coming off [CONCACAF Champions Cup] elimination against Monterrey and we had to show our character.

“Now we have won three games in a row, two on the road, and we are more solid each day. Meanwhile, we find ourselves where we are in the standings. Injured players are returning, and we hope to have a complete team by the later stages of the season.”

Sometimes good coaching is as simple as having your best players fit and available. Especially when one of them is the best to ever do it.


Stone Cold Austin FC
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez – for some reason – was a guest of honour at Q2 Stadium as Austin FC hosted Los Angeles Galaxy.

And Los Blancos’ head honcho would be satisfied to see his own Galacticos produce a goal the quality of the home side’s first strike, as a slick interchange of passes culminated with an emphatic low finish from inside the penalty area by Diego Rubio.

The second goal of Los Verdes’ impressive 2-0 victory over the side who went into the weekend top of the Western Conference was just as stunning, even if it was a little more old-fashioned in style.

It all began with a crunching yet squeaky-clean slide tackle in midfield by Alexander Ring. In one swift motion, the Finn came away with the ball and unleashed Jader Obrien with a long pass in behind the Galaxy backline. The Colombian raced clear before rattling a precise finish in off the post from a tight angle.

After starting the season with just three points from their first five fixtures, Austin have opened up a can of whoop-ass, taking 12 points from their last five games. They’re up to seventh in the West.


MLS losers

Petulant Puig
Riqui Puig has reportedly agreed terms on a new contract with LA Galaxy, keeping the cultured Spanish midfielder at Dignity Health Sports Park beyond the end of the 2025 MLS season, when his current deal expires.

It’s a huge boon to the Galaxy and MLS as a whole to have tied down one of the league’s brightest young stars who would surely have suitors among Europe’s top clubs were he to come become available.

On Saturday, though, the former Barcelona prodigy displayed a petulant streak that cost his side against Austin FC and will hamper them next week, too, when they visit the Seattle Sounders.

The flashpoint occurred in the 22nd minute, just three minutes after Austin had gone up 2-0. When the ball innocuously rolled out for a throw-in for the home side, Puig picked it up and threw in into Jon Gallagher’s face. The Irish full-back certainly exaggerated the impact, but Puig was deservedly shown a yellow card.

It was Puig’s fifth caution of the season, earning a one-game suspension.


Phil Neville’s tumbling Timbers
Despite what the Western Conference standings would suggest, the Portland Timbers are quite good.

They score two goals a game on average. They play hard and are a tough opponent for any side in the league, beaten only once this season by a margin greater than a single goal. And in Brazilian No.10 Evander – absent for this past weekend’s trip to take on LAFC – they have one of the most exciting young players in MLS.

They’re resilient, too. They fought back from 3-0 down against Sporting Kansas City to salvage a 3-3 draw a few weeks back and, down to 10 men, they held LAFC to a draw when the two sides met in Portland earlier this month.

But they have only won two of their 10 games in 2024 and sit third-from-bottom in the West. For all their talent and grit, there is a naivety to the Timbers that continues to cost them.

Against LAFC on Saturday, they once again fell behind, trailing 2-0 at half-time. They admirably clawed their way back into the game in the second period, drawing level through goals from Jonathan Rodriguez and Santiago Moreno.

But then Diego Chara – is his 337th appearance for the club, an MLS record for games played with a single team – was sent off in the 76th minute and the Timbers tumbled to a heart-wrenching stoppage-time winner scored by LA’s reigning Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga.

“We can’t just keep giving teams 2-0 head starts and expect to win games of football,” manager Phil Neville said. “That’s unacceptable. That’s on me. We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to fix it quick. And we will do, because we’re so close to being a really good team.

“If we learn that bit, we’ll be an even better team. If we don’t learn that bit, it’s going to be a long season.”

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