After going 12 games unbeaten in all competitions (8W-0L-4D) since the Argentine megastar's late-July debut, sparking a remarkable late-season turnaround, the Herons came crashing down to earth in Matchday 32.
Neither Messi nor former FC Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba featured for Miami in their Mercedes-Benz Stadium visit. They could have used their help, though, as Atlanta responded to Leonardo Campana’s 25th-minute golazo with three straight unanswered tallies. Campana pulled one back for the visitors with a second-half penalty-kick goal before Giorgos Giakoumakis and Tyler Wolff turned the game into a blowout.
"Both have muscular fatigue. There was a risk of having worse consequences if they were to play this game," head coach Tata Martino said about the missing duo. Messi, who stayed back in Miami, just returned from World Cup qualifiers with Argentina (Alba, conversely, recently retired from Spain duty).
"It had nothing to do with the [artificial] turf," Martino added, suggesting the club's packed schedule down the stretch – which includes a US Open Cup final against Houston Dynamo FC on Sept. 27 – was also a factor.
"This is the day-to-day life that we have ahead of us, because we have the quest to try to reach the playoffs. But we have the final on the 27th, so sometimes it is difficult to make decisions because these are also decisive matches."
While the Open Cup would be Miami's second-ever trophy, after capturing Leagues Cup over Nashville SC in mid-August, the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs aren't a sure thing. Tata acknowledged as much after Saturday's setback left the Herons seven points out of the ninth-and-last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with just seven games remaining.
"There are seven, eight games left, and even if we won them all, there’s no certainty either that we’d enter [the playoffs]," Martino said. "We unfortunately started this race too far behind."
Will Messi and Alba be on the DRV PNK Stadium pitch? Tata isn't revealing much for now.
"[Messi] will train tomorrow with Jordi," Martino said. "We'll take it day by day."