The Herons had rallied from the gut punch of conceding a late near-post goal by Santiago Rodríguez (77'), drawing level in the 95th minute via Tomás Avilés’ corner-kick header and scrapping desperately for a late comeback winner.
The home faithful at DRV PNK Stadium thought they’d witness exactly that when David Ruíz broke clear in the Cityzens’ penalty box two minutes later, only for the teenage homegrown’s rising shot to clang off the underside of the crossbar and bounce away from the goal.
Could such a moment turn out to be the difference between making the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs and watching them from home?
“I could’ve finished the game off,” the rising Honduran international later said to MLS Season Pass sideline reporter Katie Witham. “But I mean, it's life and it’s soccer, you know?”
Head referee Victor Rivas blew the full-time whistle less than two minutes later, leaving two points on the table for both postseason-chasing sides and setting up Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino for another round of questions about his team’s breathless hunt for the playoffs – and the status of the global megastar who’s still watching their matches from the sidelines, instead of inspiring their team on the pitch.
Lionel Messi sat out his third straight match here. And during the weather delay that pushed back kickoff by about an hour, a report broke on Twitter from a reporter named Caden DeLisa alleging an MRI had discovered a hamstring tear that was “likely” to rule Messi out for the remainder of the season.
Martino refuted the report in his postgame presser.
“It is what I said. We're going to see this game to game,” said the veteran Argentine manager in Spanish, repeating yet again the framing he’s offered since Messi returned from international duty earlier this month with what Martino described as irritation from the scar tissue of an old injury somewhere in the GOAT’s leg muscles. “We're going to evaluate him [ahead of Wednesday’s match] against Chicago.
“If he’s going to be on the bench, if he’s going to be out of the bench, whether against Chicago or Cincinnati [next weekend]. We're going to see that. He’s training on the field apart from the group, but he's feeling better and better … time will tell whether what I am saying is true or whether that person who made the report is right.”
So Martino’s best player remains unavailable until further notice, with the specifics of his ailment still shrouded in mystery. His team are laboring through an exhaustingly busy stretch of the schedule, also without Jordi Alba, and Saturday’s result further tightens their window of possibility for postseason qualification.
Injuries and fatigue have forced heavy responsibilities onto the young shoulders of Ruíz and his fellow academy products Benjamin Cremaschi and Noah Allen. Even seemingly dependable attackers like Josef Martínez and Leonardo Campana have struggled to create scoring chances with regularity.
Martino would only offer praise for his weary troops, however.
“We are losing players instead of recovering them. But this is related to the crazy amount of games we're playing,” he said, hailing the “effort,” “will” and “grit” of his squad. “We have been playing many games and they are all decisive games, not only mentally but also physically. That's why today's result is great.
“The first half vs. Houston [in this week’s US Open Cup Final loss] was disappointing. But the second half was great. And what we did today was with dignity and despite all the problems, we are trying to win. When we started, we were in last place three months ago, and these guys were able to put us where we are today. We have great expectations.”
The coach admitted to feeling “powerless” as IMCF play one important match after another with a long list of key absentees. He noted: "When you have players that have to play four games in a row a couple of times, you have to pay that bill."
Currently, the Herons are 13th in the Eastern Conference and four points below the playoff line with four games to go. While they badly needed a win this weekend, Miami still retain games in hand on their nearest competitors for sneaking into a Wild Card spot (eighth or ninth place), and those rivals keep dropping points themselves.
They’ll travel midweek to the Chicago Fire at a packed Soldier Field (Oct. 4), then host freshly-crowned Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati next weekend (Oct. 7) before closing out their league slate with back-to-back meetings with Charlotte FC (Oct. 18 & 21), the first a rescheduled game from their August Leagues Cup run.
Whether Messi is fit to play or not, Martino said Miami must win their next two to have a realistic chance of Decision Day heroics.
“The game against Chicago is going to be very, very decisive,” he predicted, later adding, “we have to win on Wednesday and Saturday.”