EDITOR'S NOTE: Lionel Messi is not in the matchday squad.
Tata Martino knows millions around the world are waiting with bated breath to learn whether Lionel Messi will take the field for Inter Miami CF in Wednesday night’s US Open Cup Final vs. Houston Dynamo FC (8:30 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Telemundo).
It’s just that he himself doesn’t even know the answer.
Speaking to reporters in his pregame press conference, the Herons’ coach maintained it’s not yet determined whether the superstar’s fitness issues – Messi is said to be hampered by irritation from the scar tissue of an old injury in one of his leg muscles – will allow him to take part, framing it as a game-time decision they’ll make together at DRV PNK Stadium.
“We imagine that he doesn't want to miss the very important final,” Martino said of Messi on Tuesday. “In this case, yes I will sit down with him to see what his feelings are. … Here there are three questions: first the player, then the final, and then what comes next.
"We will wait until tomorrow,” Martino added, leaving open the possibility that the Argentine icon could even start the match, though effectively ruled out Miami’s star left back, who is also dealing with muscular problems. “Jordi Alba, it’s difficult, but with Leo we will wait until the last moment to see the resolution we take.”
Wait and see
It’s not as if Tata would reveal all if he did know what would transpire, though.
The veteran manager readily admitted to being cagey along the usual lines of gamesmanship. The possibility of extra time and a penalty-kick shootout being needed to decide the match only adds further wrinkles to any evaluation of how and when to deploy Messi.
“I have to give info that could change the opponent’s game plan. Why should I give that info if I can keep it to myself?” said Martino. “I know that goes against people’s interests as to buy tickets or not, but we have to prioritize things as they are, and what we want is to win the game.
“He doesn’t need surgery or anything like that. It’s just a matter of how much time the player needs to rest in order to play the next game. If it wasn’t a final, we wouldn’t take any risks. But because it’s a final, there is a chance we take that risk.”
IMCF rested their “big three” of Messi, Alba and Sergio Busquets as a young Herons side sweated out a 1-1 draw at intrastate rivals Orlando City SC on Sunday. Busquets trained on Tuesday morning and addressed the media alongside Martino, usually a hint that a player is fit and available. But neither Messi nor Alba took the pitch during the limited segment of Tuesday’s practice that reporters were allowed to watch, fueling speculation that their prospects of facing Houston are slim.
“They came out after you all left,” was Martino’s playful rejoinder when pressed on that topic.
More silverware on the way?
While emphasizing the high priority Miami have assigned to hoisting their second trophy of the season after August’s Leagues Cup triumph over Nashville SC, both Martino and Busquets noted their hopes of making a late climb into one of the Eastern Conference’s final Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs places are also a factor. IMCF are currently in 14th place, five points off the pace with five games to go.
“I think he knows better than anybody else, knowing what he has to do and how he feels and how he's been doing these past few days, doing things out in the field,” said Busquets of Messi and the “certain hindrances” he’s managing.
“We're hoping for the best, because the final is a very important landmark for us. And in three days we have another important match on Saturday [vs. New York City FC], and Wednesday [at Chicago Fire FC] – they're all important for us.”
In Houston, the Herons must vanquish one of MLS’s hottest teams and a surprise contender in the West, led by the box-to-box midfield excellence of Héctor Herrera, whom Martino knows well from his time in charge of the Mexican national team during the 2022 World Cup cycle.
“Héctor knows what I think of him as a person and a footballer. For me he is a 'crack' and it is good to have him in the league, to face him in a final,” said Tata of HH. “We will try to limit his involvement, because Houston's attacking evolution depends a lot on what he starts.”