Lionel Messi & Inter Miami face daunting (but not impossible) path to playoffs


Coming off their Leagues Cup title and heart-pounding US Open Cup semifinal victory over FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami CF now turn their focus to trying to complete an epic climb back into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs field.

It won’t be easy. As you may be aware, the South Florida side found themselves dead-last on the league table (5W-14L-3D, 18 points) prior to the transformative arrival of Lionel Messi, along with his former FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

While that trio has instantly turned them into a seemingly unstoppable force, the odds remain stacked against the Herons as they look to use 12 league games to embark on a frantic quest up the Eastern Conference table.

What do Messi and Co. need to pull off to make that a reality?

How do the playoffs work?

Thankfully for Inter Miami, the single-elimination Wild Card matches in the new playoff format allow for a more forgiving path than they would have encountered in previous seasons. 

  • 18 of the league’s 29 clubs now qualify for postseason play
  • The top 9 finishers in each conference earn a spot
  • Seeds 8-9 qualify for the Wild Card matches, while 1-7 automatically earn a spot in Round One Best-of-3 series

Given the congested timeline Miami are dealing with, one of those Wild Card bids is likely the most realistic target should they pull off the blistering run of form required to get back above the line.

Some key dates to keep in mind: the regular season ends with Decision Day on Oct. 21, while MLS Cup is held on Dec. 9. And for those unfamiliar with MLS's structure, a friendly reminder that the league champion is crowned via playoffs and not the Supporters' Shield (best regular-season team). 

Let's do some math

Miami, with 18 points from 22 matches, are 14 points back of Chicago Fire FC, who currently hold the ninth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (32 points).

Their 12 remaining matches leave 36 points up for grabs between now and the end of the 2023 season. They will likely need at least 25 points (or eight or more wins) to earn a Wild Card spot. Think of roughly 45 points as the cut-off point, though even that's not guaranteed. Getting towards the 50-point range (winning nine or 10 games) will make things more comfortable.

The margin for error is extremely thin, and Miami will need help in the form of dropped points from clubs currently in front of them. Every single dropped point could prove debilitating to their chances, and it’s going to require some near-perfect soccer to make it happen.

One way to think of it is Inter Miami essentially need to match the dominant form they displayed in their title-raising Leagues Cup run, when they went 5W-0L-2D in regulation time. Replicate that and they might just squeak in. Over 2 points per game is a virtual necessity, which is nearly a Supporters’ Shield-type clip during a full season.

When do they play?

Miami have 12 regular-season games left. They'll also host the US Open Cup Final vs. Houston Dynamo FC on Sept. 27, adding to the fixture congestion and lineup juggling already facing manager Tata Martino.

  • Aug. 26 at New York Red Bulls
  • Aug. 30 vs. Nashville SC
  • Sept. 3 at LAFC
  • Sept. 9 vs. Sporting Kansas City
  • Sept. 16 at Atlanta United
  • Sept. 20 vs. Toronto FC
  • Sept. 24 at Orlando City SC
  • Sept. 30 vs. New York City FC
  • Oct. 4 at Chicago Fire FC
  • Oct. 7 vs. FC Cincinnati
  • Oct. 21 at Charlotte FC
  • TBD vs. Charlotte FC (Rescheduled)

Some highlights in there are a Leagues Cup Final rematch with Nashville, a cross-country trip to LAFC (defending MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winners), a visit to Thiago Almada and Atlanta, and a late-season battle against first-place Cincy.

It all ends with an Oct. 21 Decision Day showdown at Charlotte, creating quite a daunting task when spelled out on paper.

Difference between Leagues Cup and Open Cup

Miami’s undefeated form in tournament play since the arrival of Messi, Busquets and Alba gives reason for optimism. But there is a major difference to keep in mind when assessing their chances of carrying those results over.

Namely, the absence of penalty-kick shootouts, which Miami used to great effect in Leagues Cup and Open Cup, emerging victorious from three different ones in tournament play. In MLS, they won’t have that luxury. Draws end in regulation, meaning that any level result will finish with them splitting a point apiece with their opposition. That’s something Miami won’t be able to afford much at all, particularly in their home matches, where taking all three points is paramount for their chances.

Do they have a chance?

The odds clearly aren't in their favor. But given what we’ve seen from them thus far, counting this iteration of Inter Miami out entirely would be unwise.

Their Leagues Cup run gave a glimpse into the type of soccer this group is capable of playing. And those early returns were simply eye-popping, especially in attack, where Messi’s infusion has resulted in a team that looks electric every time they’re in possession. The Argentine icon elevates those around him to a degree few, if any, players have ever been able to match. The impact of Busquets and Alba also shouldn’t be understated, and that trio gives this group a chance to win outright in any match they play.

Their outlook depends on two things:

  1. The health and availability of their new superstars, who may not have lost much in terms of ability, but are also past 30 and are going to deal with the famously difficult fixture congestion and travel demands of MLS for the first time. They likely can’t play every minute, and it’s up to Martino to figure out how to best manage the squad to ensure everyone is fresh and available without sacrificing results. For Messi, in particular, the miles may add up when introducing international breaks and games for Argentina.
  2. They’ll need to be much more sound in defense, where they displayed plenty of vulnerability in Leagues Cup and in Open Cup despite the fantastic results. FC Dallas tagged Miami for four goals in their Leagues Cup Round-of-16 match, while FC Cincinnati also managed three against them in the USOC semis, as two examples. If they’re conceding like that with any type of regularity, it’s likely to result in too many dropped points, no matter how many goals they score themselves.

Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to watch if they can pull it off, and one of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on down the stretch run of the 2023 season.

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