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As Messi Mania hits US, Bafana’s Hlongwane has same scoring rate in cup

Bongokuhle Hlongwane during Minnesota United's Major League Soccer game against Toronto FC at Allianz Field in St Paul, Minnesota on June 3 2023.
Bongokuhle Hlongwane during Minnesota United's Major League Soccer game against Toronto FC at Allianz Field in St Paul, Minnesota on June 3 2023.
Image: Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images

While US football has been gripped by “Messi Mania” over Inter Miami’s Leagues Cup triumph on the back of Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi’s scoring form, South Africans might not have noticed that Bafana Bafana star Bongokuhle Hlongwane was second-top scorer in the competition.

Messi’s scoring statistics since joining Inter Miami have been phenomenal, the 2022 World Cup-winner scoring 10 goals in seven Leagues Cup matches.

But in the same competition Hlongwane was just three goals behind on seven. And given his club Minnesota United exited in the quarterfinals, Hlongwane’s goals came in just five matches.

Hlongwane, 23, was level with Messi on seven goals at the quarterfinal stage.

Hlongwane pulls back into a tie with Lionel Messi in the Leagues Cup Golden Boot race as he notches his seventh of the tournament in the 32th minute against Toluca.

The former Maritzburg United forward’s goals in the cup competition were scored at 1.4 per game. Messi’s goals came at a rate of 1.43 per game — a minuscule amount more.

The structuring of soccer in the US is generally conducted in a far different manner to most places in the world.

The Leagues Cup is competed by teams from America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) and Mexico’s top flight Liga MX.

Previously eight teams — the top four clubs from Liga MX, and top two teams from the MLS’s two conferences (Eastern and Western) who had not qualified for the Concacaf Champions League — would compete.

In 2023 the competition was expanded to include every team in both leagues — 47 in all (18 from Mexico, 15 from the MLS Eastern Conference and 14 from the Western Conference).

Given the scale of the competition, the MLS and Liga MX have been suspended for the duration of the 2023 Leagues Cup.

So Messi, while he was signed by Inter in mid-July, is yet to kick a ball in the MLS, where the team part-owned by David Beckham are in last place after 22 matches in the Eastern Conference.

Messi might find the scoring more difficult when MLS football resumes, but he seems sure to be influential in Inter moving off bottom place at least in their conference.

Hlongwane is Minnesota’s top scorer in the MLS with six goals in 22 matches as United sit in ninth place after 23 games in the Western Conference.

In the Leagues Cup Hlongwane scored four goals in two games — a brace in each — as Minnesota ended second in their group in a round robin phase, with Chicago Fire first and Mexico’s Puebla third.

He scored twice as United’s last-32 game against Columbus Crew ended 3-3 and was settled on penalties. Hlongwane scored another in his team’s 2-2 last-16 draw against Mexico’s Toluca in the last-16 game, which was also decided by spot-kicks.

Minnesota lost 5-0 against Nashville SC in the quarters.

Messi scored a beauty as Miami took the final to 1-1 in regulation time against Nashville at Geodis Park in Nashville, Tennessee, the Florida team winning 10-9 on penalties.

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