National Writer: Charles Boehm

Audi MLS Cup Playoffs: Can Inter Miami really do this?


“Like sands through the hourglass…”

Perhaps it should be no great surprise the opening lines from a long-running soap opera so aptly apply to the final weeks of Inter Miami CF’s season. While the Herons have been kicking off almost exclusively at night lately, there are distinct parallels to daytime drama in the twists, turns, highs and lows of their 2023 campaign.

And it looks like that will hold true right up until the season finale.

In almost any context, Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Orlando City SC, a nasty, savagely physical match with every ounce of the bad blood you’d expect from a Florida derby and then some, is a laudable result for IMCF. They took the pitch at Exploria Stadium without their “big three” of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba due to (and depending on who you ask) a mix of injury and fatigue concerns, and also left Diego Gómez at home and gave Facundo Farías some rest with a place among the substitutes.

So Miami started four teenagers, apparently for the first time in club history, in the form of Benja Cremaschi, David Ruíz, Noah Allen (all academy kids) and Tomás Avilés. Due in part to all of that, as well as the fact their hosts are one of the league’s top sides, currently running second in the Eastern Conference and third in the overall table, coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino arranged his side in a 5-3-2 formation designed to clog the middle of the park and shield the back three.

Florida Derby drama

Things got even more complicated as the match played out, as Avilés and his fellow center back Sergii Kryvtsov came off at halftime due to caution concerns and concussion protocol, respectively. Amid all those headwinds, it represented a massive breakthrough when Ruiz sniffed out the rebound to open the scoring after Pedro Gallese could only parry Josef Martínez’s shot in the 52nd minute.

Orlando’s response was ferocious, and Duncan McGuire’s 66th-minute equalizer a fair reward for their dominance down the stretch, with a final expected-goals tally of 1.4 to 0.7 underlining OCSC’s superiority in the final stages. The Lions have reason to rue their imperfect finishing, yet as their leader made clear, their efforts up to this point have earned them a cushion Miami can only envy.

“I told the players, there is no sense of frustration at all today. We're good. We're going on,” said Oscar Pareja. “Just look at the standings, look how the things are and how we gave us the opportunity to be in this position. And we still have two games at home and two games away.

“Miami will have their own problems and we'll see how they resolve it,” he later added when asked whether his club might prefer to extinguish the Herons’ postseason hopes. “Obviously this rivalry is growing and as it grows, we don't want it, but if we have them in playoffs, we will take them, there is no problem for us.”

Nine times out of 10, Miami would happily grab this outcome with both hands.

“We played with three kids from the academy and one of them scored,” mused Martino postgame. “We were able to get a draw; I think at some point we could’ve lost the game, but in another moment it was there for us. Taking all of this into consideration, we’ll see if this point matters for what we’re ultimately trying to accomplish. But if you think about it solely for what the game was, truly I’m leaving very satisfied, because a great effort was made today.”

The problem for him and his team is this very well could turn out to be that one time out of 10. Miami’s brutal first half of the season left them with precious little margin for error as they sought to rebound under the influence of Messi and friends. And with each passing matchday that does not reap a full three points, that margin erodes further and further, like that sand flowing down that hourglass.

Messi's availability?

Miami still have games in hand on most of the teams ahead of them in the race for the East's final playoff slots. Which, as the above tweet illustrates, means their maximum-points ceiling (47) is still reasonably high, especially considering past seasons suggest 43 or so points would likely give them a good shot at ninth place, which this year is the final postseason berth. IMCF themselves made last year’s postseason with 48 points, good for sixth place in 2022.

Yet there are just so many variables at play, starting with Messi’s fitness concerns, which we are told are the consequences of scar tissue from past injuries that have been flaring up and limiting his mobility.

That’s all unfolding in a very tenuous timeline backdropped by their congested schedule, as epitomized by the fact that on Wednesday they will battle Houston Dynamo FC for the US Open Cup trophy – a big match sandwiched by Sunday’s rivalry clash on the one side and next weekend’s massive playoff-race six-pointer vs. New York City FC.

“It’s very difficult to give him a percentage because we have to take it day by day,” said Tata when asked about Messi’s prospects of taking the pitch at DRV PNK Stadium at midweek. “We’ll continue to evaluate him and, as I always say, I will listen to him first and see how he’s feeling. Then we’ll also need to evaluate future risks. It’s not an easy decision, but we’re going to take the right amount of time to try to not make a mistake.”

A busy, pivotal stretch drive

It’s all piling up for IMCF like a rush-hour wreck on I-95, and that imposes a psychological weight that has and will continue to test Martino’s leadership abilities. Whether they hoist Open Cup hardware on Wednesday or suffer a gut punch on home turf, they’ll have to pivot with exceptional speed and focus for NYCFC’s visit on Saturday.

After that it's a quick turn for the midweek trip to Chicago to face an increasingly desperate Fire side at what's expected to be a packed Soldier Field, then yet another painfully short recovery before league leaders FC Cincinnati hit South Florida on Oct. 7.

Might Cincy have already clinched the Supporters’ Shield and thus be inclined to rotate their lineup? Will Messi be able to play a role in any of those matches? All of them? Will he jet off to rejoin Argentina for the October international window? At this point, no one really knows what his body will allow.

Miami’s season concludes with one final calendar quirk: Back-to-back matches vs. Charlotte FC thanks to a rescheduled match at DRV PNK (Oct. 18) before a Decision Day redux (Oct. 21) at Bank of America Stadium.

That’s a rare sort of cliffhanger, and given the exceptional events of IMCF’s year to date, they’ll be comfortable dealing with the uncertainty therein. They just have to stay alive long enough to reach that point.