Lionel Messi-less Inter Miami carry "confidence" into Sporting KC test

Leo Campana - Inter Miami

Lionel Messi’s dream start to life at Inter Miami CF has even the most skeptical observers buying into the club’s chances of making the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

However, one huge question mark remains: Can they do it without their superstar No. 10?

Perhaps we’ll get something of an answer Saturday night (7:30 pm ET | Apple TV - MLS Season Pass) when the Herons host Sporting Kansas City in their first match without Messi since his mid-summer arrival alongside fellow FC Barcelona legends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. They've transformed Miami from MLS bottom dwellers into Leagues Cup 2023 champions (earning them a spot in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup), US Open Cup finalists and, potentially, playoff contenders.

That’s the power of the GOAT, who has 11g/5a (counting only primary assists) in 11 unbeaten games across all competitions with his new club. But with the 2022 FIFA World Cup winner – along with seven teammates – currently away on international duty with Argentina, the Herons must continue their late postseason push considerably short-handed.

For striker Leonardo Campana, this Matchday 31 contest is the perfect opportunity for Miami, currently 14th in the Eastern Conference table (7W-14L-4D record) and eight points behind the playoff line, to silence any remaining doubters and prove they are a legitimate force to be reckoned with – even when missing their best player.

“Obviously we’re going to feel Messi’s absence\], but we have players with a lot of quality,” the Ecuadorian international, who hours earlier watched Messi defeat his country with a [trademark free-kick golazo for Argentina on the opening night of 2026 World Cup qualifiers, told reporters before SKC’s visit to DRV PNK Stadium.

“Leo has raised everybody’s level, our level of confidence. But we’re a totally different team now and I’m sure tomorrow we’ll end up with all three points.”

Head coach Gerardo Martino was equally optimistic, despite dealing with a long list of international call-ups that also includes midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi (USA), striker Josef Martínez (Venezuela) and winger Robert Taylor (Finland), to name a few.

“We have a very good team to face the game against Kansas [City],” Tata confidently stated. “... This happens in every squad: there are players who play a lot more, many more games, many more minutes. Others, less. And they should take advantage of these types of situations.”

Martino also addressed growing speculation in Argentina that Messi could sit out La Albiceleste’s visit to Bolivia on Tuesday, possibly allowing him to report back to club duty ahead of schedule.

“It’s too soon,” Martino said. “… If he has a chance to play against Bolivia, I can’t imagine him coming back [early]."

If Miami defeat SKC, they would reach 28 points and still hold games in hand. They'll also be boosted by goalkeeper Drake Callender, an unsung hero of their rise, not yet joining the US men's national team.

“We have a very good team to face the game against Kansas [City], always with the same illusion for every game, with the same expectations of being able to continue in this direction," said Martino. "And we’ll see if we can keep closing the gap in search of the playoffs, but with the tranquility of having a very competitive team."

Sporting's rise

Somewhat lost in the noise of Miami’s epic summer makeover has been Sporting’s own turnaround following a dire start to the season.

After going winless in their first 10 games of 2023, SKC have righted the ship and are in the thick of the playoff race – thanks in large part to the performances of Designated Player Alan Pulido. The club-record signing from Chivas de Guadalajara missed the entire 2022 campaign with a knee injury but is back with a vengeance, putting together his best season in MLS with 12g/3a.

Even with a red-hot striker in form and his club riding a two-game winning streak, SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes isn’t taking anything for granted against a short-handed Miami side.

“For us, it truly doesn’t matter who’s playing because, as you said, they have a very, very good roster,” Vermes said, noting the Herons’ depth helps make up for Messi’s absence. “They have a lot of players that can play at a very high level and there’s a lot of quality there.”

As Sporting sit two points behind the playoff line in the Western Conference with just seven games remaining, a positive result is essential to keep their postseason hopes alive.

“We know that we’re going into the lion’s den and we got to get something out of this game,” Vermes said. “I don’t know what it is, but we have to get something out of this game.”