With a blow of the referee’s whistle, the U.S. Open Cup semifinal between FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami is officially underway. Leo Campana takes the opening kick for Miami, sending it back toward midfield to start the visiting Leagues Cup winners’ clash at MLS-leading FC Cincinnati with the promise of a final awaiting the victor. However, the Paramount+ camera operator does not follow the ball, nor do they cut to another angle showing the midfielders and defenders who may receive Campana’s pass.
This camera operator has a different task today, one that goes against every word of their training and experience over the years. They’re not here to show a soccer match, not in any traditional sense. No, their approach today is simple: keep Lionel Messi in the center of the frame.
The “Star Cam” option is meant to be viewed on a second screen. The idea is that while your television displays the main feed, you can set up a smaller device to quickly glance at whatever Messi is up to in his portion of the field. It allows you to see every reaction, every interaction and every single moment of his time on the pitch.
It’s nice to have guidance, but we’re professionals here at The Athletic —and besides, coverage of American men’s soccer over the last two months has kept Messi at the heart of just about everything going on. Plus the Star Cam is 10-15 seconds ahead of the primary broadcast, so a two-screen sync doesn’t quite work, anyway.
As Campana kicks off, Messi strolls roughly 10 yards forward, to the edge of the groundskeeper’s first strip of grass beyond the halfway line. Then, he turns around to begin doing what he does better than just about any player in the history of this or any team sport: he reads the game.
There’s a trope in American sports that fans gravitate to players who look to be working hard: a scrappy middle infielder who dives for every grounder, a basketball player who hustles back after every turnover to guard a determined would-be scorer, a soccer player whose motor seemingly never loses steam. They don’t need to be the most talented or cerebral players on the field to win the hearts of their supporters, they just need to visibly be trying at every second of the contest, as if to prove to viewers that they care about more than their paycheck.
Now, American sports has an all-time great playing on MLS pitches on a regular basis —one who, quite famously, walks a lot. It seems like easy fodder for the anti-soccer crowd: “your so-called greats don’t even run? Where’s the entertainment here,” you can hear your local sports talk radio host bellowing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of his first lessons for new 19-year-old teammate David Ruiz wasn’t about curling in a free kick or placing a shot from 30 yards out; it was about fighting the human instinct to be proactive as a necessity toward success.
“One thing Messi told me is to stand still more,” Ruiz told Diario AS earlier this week. “You want to run for every ball, look for space to have it more, but he has told me to stay still in my position and the ball will come to me. I tried it and it came off. I was more patient.”
Can you imagine an entire game where every player took Messi’s advice and stood still more? We tried a simulation along those lines ahead of the World Cup, but that’s just a video game. In a time where referees have been told to increase their stoppage time totals to account for widespread time-wasting, would they have to factor all of the times where the ball is in play and the 21 players without it at their feet are watching and waiting?
It takes about 15 minutes to accept the oddities that come with only watching the Star Cam. You feel an unexpected wave of relief washing over you as he collects the ball for the first time — met by an even larger wave of shock when, upon poking the ball up the field, you aren’t able to see if he’s even completed the pass.
At age 36, Messi is understandably stoic; he’s seen everything there is to see in a game, and one incomplete pass isn’t going to ruin his day or prompt a slouch of his shoulders. While he’s one of the sport’s great artists, he hasn’t always been one of its greatest showmen. He won’t play up his reactions to land in the replay cycle like Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That’s wasted time that he could otherwise spend looking for space and his next involvement.
“Messi is different from anybody else,” former Barcelona teammate Cesc Fabregas told The Athletic in early June. “Apart from the fact that he’s the best, he’s very, very intelligent. He will be walking for three or four minutes. You will not see him. But the moment you see him, he will make things happen. It is a very rare thing with players. Me, I have to run. We all have to run. We don’t make that much of a difference when we’re not running.”
It isn’t just the hard-working full back who entered MLS via its college SuperDraft who’s out there busting a lung to get involved. When one of a generation’s great midfielders admits they can’t afford to walk like Messi, it helps drive home just how good Messi has to be to get away with this.
There are some frustrations that come with the Messi Cam viewing experience. There’s no commentary (although, that omission feels welcome at a certain point once you accept your assignment to zero in on one player), just crowd noise. There isn’t a score graphic either, with the only clue that Cincinnati opened the scoring coming from the flashing lights in the stadium as Messi seems surprisingly unfazed.
You assume it’s 2-0 mere minutes later as the light show kicks off again, only correcting that assumption after your concerned friends at FotMob notify you that VAR has whistled it offside.
Fast-forward to the second half, and it’s more of the same. Even as Cincinnati handles kickoff responsibilities, Messi has an identical routine: run to the edge of that patch of grass, stop, and read the game. The next 25 minutes will play out in largely the same manner as the first half had: fewer touches from Messi than you’d expect, especially in any post code close to the box.
Minor spoiler, but Messi didn’t take a shot of any kind in the first or second half of this match. It’s a stark contrast to his Leagues Cup run, when he scored in all seven matches while logging an average of 3.57 shots per appearance. When you spend so much time watching him, you completely understand how that happened, and it’s largely a credit to FC Cincinnati. First, Obinna Nwobodo was fantastic at staying between Messi and goal whenever the ball was in his remote vicinity, cutting down the Argentine’s ability to set his own shot up on the dribble. Second, Messi’s role in the final third is to either create chances or be the late-runner into the box with Martino opting to play with a pair of strikers.
The system is keeping him further away from the box than we saw in the Leagues Cup — which certainly helps to explain the attack’s delayed entry into this match.
It’s the 68th minute, and Miami has a free kick in a dangerous area down the left wing. Surely, the Star Cam operator is thanking their stars for the moment. Messi curls an inch-perfect cross from his stationary place along the left flank into the box, and gives a slight fist pump as he turns to slap hands with Jordi Alba. Messi maintains a poker face, but it’s likely because his side remains down a goal.
Such are the realities of the Star Cam: there will be no replays to let you know what happened or where his ball ended up (on Campana’s forehead around the edge of the six-yard box).
It’s frustrating not to see a single shot of what Messi has created, but I get it from a broadcast standpoint. The Star Cam is a near-meditative experience when viewed in isolation, with Messi’s low work rate in many phases lulling you into a trance before a single kick can flip a game on its head. It’s something my colleague Pablo Maurer experienced at field level when he photographed Messi’s match against Philadelphia: “You endeavor to stay one step ahead of (players), to afford even a millisecond to compose in real-time. But through the lens, Messi disappears in plain sight, so often leaving you with shots that are out of focus, poorly framed or sometimes lacking the player at all.”GO DEEPERPhotographing Messi is like defending him
After leaving Nwobodo in charge of GOAT wrangling, every touch he’ll make following Miami’s first goal will draw at least two converging Cincinnati defenders. They’re hardly the first team to make this adjustment.
“Leo has something so special,” Fabregas added. “He attracts so many opponents and makes things so much easier for his teammates that you just allow him to do what he wants because you know what you get from him.”
It seems as though Cincinnati’s increased focus will do the trick, as they cling to a 2-1 lead deep into second half stoppage time. After taking the majority of his touches to the right of the pitch’s lateral center, Messi gets on the ball down the left flank six minutes into added time. He heaves a ball toward the box, and it’s a weirdly humanizing sequence. He’s off-balance, something you almost never see from a player with such prodigious equilibrium.
As the camera operator fights all instincts to follow the ball, you watch him stumble and collect himself as he watches his creation: in this case, a late equalizer to keep Miami in contention to win the U.S. Open Cup, if only for another 30 minutes. Unlike Campana’s opener, Messi breaks into arguably his quickest sprint of the match, ready to jump into the striker’s arms to celebrate.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) August 24, 2023
If you’re ever wanting to raise your anxiety level in an otherwise resting state, try watching extra time of a cup semifinal without being able to see 21 of the 22 players involved. It’s a jarring experience in a high-stakes moment, as the extra half-hour provides many match situations that are primed for the unexpected. It takes three minutes for that fear to be realized, when Miami finally figures out how to score without Messi’s involvement as Josef Martínez slots home a pass from Benjamin Cremaschi. Messi is around the area, but does not apply any of the final touches.
This time, he jogs toward the celebration, perhaps conserving his energy to stay on the field for the rest of the match. He’s visibly exhausted as he’s now played 684 minutes during the peak of an American summer heat wave since debuting on July 21, more frequently needing to catch his breath after the ball changes hands. Messi has not been a renowned part of a forward press in this golden age of defending from the front, so it isn’t a surprise for him to let his teammates do that leg work as they try to finish off the upset.
In the 113th minute, Messi’s low defensive work rate plays a role in a blown lead of Miami’s own. Cincinnati pulls back an equalizer, with Yuya Kubo making an uncontested stroll toward the box in the exact channel that Messi occupies before slotting home a finish. Not that Messi’s stationary presence would clue you into that fact — it’s one instance where a replay became mandatory for the sake of comprehension. Most other teams would have their right winger screening late runners to cut off passing lanes and (at minimum) pester them before they take a shot.
Not so today, and we’re off to penalties. Even as Messi converts Miami’s first kick of the shootout, it’s pure Star Cam. You don’t see where he placed his kick, nor is his typically calm expression giving away any clues. Only when his teammates greet him with congratulation in lieu of consolation are you confident that it’s 1-1 in the sequence’s early goings.
Then, shock briefly returns. The Star Cam demonstrates full commitment to the bit, not wanting to make the same mistake as Fox at the 2022 World Cup final when Messi’s reaction to Gonzalo Montiel’s tournament-clincher wasn’t shown for several minutes as the feed focused on the kick itself. I’ll be learning which team will advance to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final solely from one man’s reaction.
At this point, Messi is watching almost exclusively with his hands on his knees, hunched over toward the edge of Miami’s lineup.
He claps whenever a Miami kick is converted, glares at a few Cincinnati hecklers and occasionally tries to keep goalkeeper Drake Callender’s spirits high from afar with calming gestures and nods. As it goes into the fourth round, his competitive nerves are clearly taking over, as he’s scooched backward a good five feet to stand behind his teammates. He may not have known much about the U.S. Open Cup before today, but it’s a trophy on offer and you don’t win the most of any player ever by being picky. If Messi has a chance to win hardware, he won’t settle for defeat.
With Cincinnati’s final kick, a smile creeps across his face. Surely, Callender made the necessary stop —but you can’t be sure. Not until Cremaschi steps up to the spot, at least. After the stadium mics pick up the blown whistle to start the youngster’s run-up, you’re watching Messi as intently as he’s watching the kick. You see pure joy, one final run for the day toward the 18-year-old Miami native to celebrate a place in the final.
While it’s something along the lines of sensory deprivation, the Star Cam experience did provide some fascinating insights into Messi, as a man and as a player alike. It also forced you to make sense of his lessened involvement in regulation, crediting Cincinnati’s scheme while making sense of Miami’s despite being unable to see any of the action beyond his immediate vicinity.
A spokesperson at CBS Sports confirmed that they’ll roll the Star Cam out for some of Christian Pulisic’s matches with AC Milan in the coming months if you’d like to try this experience out with a more industrious player. But if you caught this match and left feeling disappointed by Messi’s lack of running, fear not: the 2023 World Athletics Championships are underway in Budapest on CNBC and Peacock, with plenty of medals still to be awarded for the sprinters involved.
(Top photo: Jeff Dean/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)