National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi returns, but Inter Miami's playoff dream ends: Now what?


It took nearly three months – and they made plenty of magic in the meantime – but it turns out Inter Miami CF can in fact lose with Lionel Messi on the pitch. And the first such occurrence just happens to coincide with the official end of their long-shot quest to qualify for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

After missing four matches with a still-not-fully-explained muscular issue, the GOAT was welcomed back by the Herons as FC Cincinnati visited DRV PNK Stadium, with Messi logging 35 minutes off the bench. But for the first time since he donned their pink kit back in late July, he could not make the difference, watching helplessly as his countryman Álvaro Barreal (78') pounced on a rebound to slot home the only goal of a deceptively wild, end-to-end tussle on a rainy South Florida night.

“His injury is healed, but he hasn't played very much recently and his rhythm was off, and that is why he went only 32, 33 minutes, because he hasn't played many games,” a philosophical Tata Martino told reporters of Messi after his side’s 1-0 loss to Cincy.

“From my point of view, the football in the first half was the best that we've had in a while, and we didn't make the difference. And the second half was a different story.”

Or as Cincy boss Pat Noonan phrased it to MLS Season Pass reporter Katie Witham: “You know, it was a strange 1-0 game. There could have been eight, nine goals – three or four or five for each team.”

Where did it go wrong?

Ironically, Miami dominated the early stages well before Messi’s entry, clanging three good looks off the woodwork against the freshly-crowned Supporters’ Shield winners before fading down the stretch in a fashion evocative of how the back half of their roller-coaster season played out.

“We had our most wonderful moments until the [September] FIFA dates. And we had problems after that because of an accumulation of games and injuries,” said Martino. “Up to that point, we had an idea – it wasn't trained very well, but it was very clear in the players’ heads.

“I believe that with the losses we started to have, the modifications we started to make, so many variables in the team changed from one game to the next – because we had to modify it to be able to take care of our players – we deteriorated our idea, our central tenet … in the last 20 days, we had our worst time of the year, of course when we had the most need to have the team as healthy as possible.”

After brutal struggles in the first half of the year which led to the dismissal of Phil Neville and plunged the Herons to the foot of the MLS table, Miami made massive midsummer changes, bringing on Martino and signing Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and three talented young South Americans via the U22 Initiative.

Though the hole from those early stages ultimately proved too deep to dig out of, it did conjure up immediate, unexpected magic in the first edition of the expanded Leagues Cup. Messi’s genius sparked a jaw-dropping run to that tournament’s championship, earning a hefty cash prize and a precious slot in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup.

Which proved a double-edged sword, according to Tata.

“The season, really, I thought it was going to be completely different from what happened,” he explained. “My expectations were to create the group, train them in our style of soccer, don't go too deep in Leagues Cup, and compete very well – because we only had two games in the cup – and to be classified [for the playoffs].”

Instead, IMCF won the Leagues Cup, a vital achievement and proof of concept. Yet it added five extra games to the meat of their already-congested schedule, additional mileage that eventually caught up to the bodies and minds of Messi and his teammates.

Looking ahead?

The Herons went winless in the four games Messi just missed. Would they have picked up the necessary points if he’d been on the pitch? Would he have stayed healthy if not for that Leagues Cup run? These and other questions may echo for IMCF and their fans through the long offseason.

Will those coming months include a loan move for Messi, to his old club FC Barcelona? Martino was asked about rumors to that effect.

“That's surprising. I know nothing about that,” said the coach. “If you're telling me that he's going to go visit Barcelona on vacation, yes, it's probable, but I don't have any information on the other part.”

Martino hinted the coming winter could feature just as much change as the summer transfer window, if not more.

“We have a lot of time. We have two more games for sure. But now we're going to work on what comes next,” said the veteran manager, who sounded leery of risking any injury-plagued players like Alba in their two dead-rubber matches vs. Charlotte FC on Oct. 18 and 21.

“We – and I'm talking about the club – believe that we've made good decisions during the summer. And I believe that with so many things that need to be done for December and January, we're going to have to be once more very precise and very solid in the analysis of what we're going to do next season.”

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