Inter Miami’s unrelenting schedule has caught up to Lionel Messi

CINCINNATI, OHIO - AUGUST 23: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami speaks with Gerardo Martino during a stoppage in play in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against FC Cincinnati at TQL Stadium on August 23, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Dean/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami at the absolute perfect time to win trophies. He carried Inter through the Leagues Cup within weeks of signing. On Wednesday, he can win a second title in as many months; Miami hosts the Houston Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup final (8:35 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network/Paramount+/Telemundo).

But he also joined Inter Miami at the absolute busiest time. Between the Leagues Cup, Open Cup, Major League Soccer and World Cup qualifiers, his calendar ingested 25 games in 93 days. He jumped feet-first into that unrelenting stretch without a preseason, after a multi-week vacation. And right around the midway point, in Month 2 of 3, the busyness caught up with him.

Messi has now missed or exited six consecutive games between club and country, and is questionable for Wednesday’s final. He first “felt something” late in Argentina’s Sept. 7 win over Ecuador. He has since tried to manage back-of-leg discomfort that has been described as everything from “fatigue” to “scar tissue,” and that forced him to exit last week’s game against Toronto after 36 minutes.

Six days later, on the eve of the final, he did not participate in the brief open period of Inter Miami’s training session — though he might have joined once media left. An ESPN Argentina camera captured him in street clothes, speaking on the phone at the top of nearby bleachers. Two hours later, Miami head coach Tata Martino was asked about Messi’s availability, and divulged very little.

“We will wait until tomorrow,” Martino said. For Jordi Alba, who is also dealing with a hamstring injury, it will be “difficult,” Martino added, “but Leo, we are going to wait until tomorrow, until the last minute.”

So the world will wait as well, wondering how Miami will handle its Messi conundrum.

What is Messi’s injury?

Messi, it seems, has been dealing with the remnants of an old injury. He has intermittently struggled with his right hamstring over the years, ever since he was a teenager at Barcelona. It has seemingly been bothering him again this month.

Martino and reporters close to Messi have repeatedly said that it’s not an “injury,” by which they likely mean that Messi didn’t suffer a fresh hamstring strain or tear. Multiple scans, including one last Thursday, have reportedly confirmed that there is no new injury. Martino reiterated Tuesday that Messi won’t need surgery.

Instead, Messi likely sat out matches against Bolivia, Atlanta and Orlando, and called for a first-half sub against Toronto, to protect against a significant strain. “Fatigue” — one explanation given by Martino — leaves Messi susceptible to an aggravation or something worse. This, Martino said, is about “how much time the player needs to rest in order to play a game.”

Why does Messi have so many games?

Messi, like most top pros, plays for his national team, Argentina, and his professional club, Inter Miami.

Inter Miami, like most pro clubs, plays in multiple competitions. Traditionally, MLS teams have had their 34-game regular season, then playoffs. They also enter the U.S. Open Cup, a separate single-elimination tournament played on weeknights during the MLS season.

What made Miami’s summer particularly busy was the invention of a third competition, the Leagues Cup, a mid-season, month-long tournament concocted by MLS and its Mexican equivalent, Liga MX, to integrate (and monetize) the North American soccer market.

Some teams exited the Leagues Cup after only two July games, and got a three-week break before the MLS season resumed on Aug. 19. Miami, on the other hand, kept winning, so it added five Leagues Cup knockout-round games to its schedule in August. The final conflicted with an MLS fixture, Miami versus Charlotte, which was rescheduled and now clutters Messi’s October calendar.

Then, four days after winning the Leagues Cup, Messi played 120 minutes in a dramatic U.S. Open Cup semifinal, which Miami won — which added the final to its docket a month later.

What is the U.S. Open Cup?

The Open Cup is the United States’ longest-running soccer competition. It’s the American equivalent of England’s FA Cup or Spain’s Copa del Rey. It’s the original and true national championship.

Around 100 teams now enter the tournament annually, including amateur and semi-pro clubs. All 24 members of the second-tier United Soccer League (USL) Championship enter in the second round. MLS teams join the fray in the third or fourth round, when the field has been whittled down to 48 or 32.

Do people care about the Open Cup?

Some do. An Open Cup title is generally seen as less prestigious than an MLS title nowadays. But it’s still a title.

Many MLS clubs, therefore, rest their starters in earlier rounds. But if their reserves carry them to the Round of 16 or quarterfinals, priorities begin to shift. Inter Miami played most of its regulars in both of those rounds. They beat a mostly second-string Nashville side in May, then the second-division Birmingham Legion on June 7 — the same day Messi announced his decision to join.

HARRISON, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 26: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami hugs Leonardo Campana #9 of Inter Miami as he is subbed in during the second half of the Major League Soccer match against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on August 26, 2023 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

Has Miami prioritized the Open Cup?

Yes. Miami has prioritized the Open Cup over the MLS playoff race.

That became clear two days after the Leagues Cup final, and two days before the Open Cup semifinal against Cincinnati. Martino was asked about managing Messi’s workload. "We said that at some point he would have to rest because of the load of minutes played," Martino responded. "Clearly, [the Open Cup semifinal on] Wednesday is not going to be that day.” (Three days later, Messi began his first MLS game on the bench.)

Similar thinking has governed Martino’s management of Messi this month. Miami is chasing a playoff spot, and remains five points back with five games to go. But Messi has only started and finished two of the six MLS games for which he’s been available. The primary goal was to have him fit for Wednesday’s final.

Are Messi and Miami favored in the Open Cup final?

Of course they are.

The Dynamo, their opponent, have been surging in MLS. Houston has taken 14 points from seven games since the Leagues Cup, with 16 goals scored and only four conceded. But Miami still hasn’t lost with Messi on the field — and even looks respectable without him.

On Tuesday morning, Miami was a -250 favorite at BetMGM to lift the trophy, and -145 to win in regulation — lines that presumably expected Messi to play. After his absence at training, those odds began to drift. But even after Martino’s news conference, they held firm at -200 and -115.

Can Messi and Miami still make the MLS playoffs?

Definitely — though their hopes largely hinge on Messi’s involvement.

The good news is threefold: 1) Miami has five games remaining, whereas some other playoff bubble teams only have three or four; 2) four of the five games are against those bubble teams; and 3) none of the other bubble teams is particularly good.

The bad news is twofold: 1) Miami has to leapfrog five of its six direct competitors, not just one or two; and 2) Messi’s status for all five remaining games is uncertain.

What’s next for Messi?

Whether or not he plays Wednesday, there is zero time to decompress and recharge. Messi’s remaining schedule is as follows:

  • Wed. Sept. 27: Miami vs. Houston (Open Cup)

  • Sat. Sept. 30: Miami vs. NYCFC (MLS)

  • Wed. Oct. 4: Miami at Chicago (MLS)

  • Sat. Oct. 7: Miami vs. Cincinnati (MLS)

  • Thurs. Oct. 12: Argentina vs. Paraguay (World Cup qualifying)

  • Tues. Oct. 17: Argentina at Peru (World Cup qualifying)

  • Wed. Oct. 18: Miami vs. Charlotte (MLS)

  • Sat. Oct. 21: Miami at Charlotte (MLS)

Messi, of course, will not play in all eight of those games. One looming question revolves around his Argentina duties. MLS does not pause for international breaks, when clubs are required by FIFA to release their players to national teams. If Messi is fit, and Argentina calls him, he is technically required to report for both games, endure multiple long flights, and almost certainly miss the penultimate match of Miami’s regular season.

In reality, though, discussions will be more complex. All involved have a vested interest in Messi’s medium- and long-term fitness. Argentina — which shouldn’t struggle to qualify for the 2026 World Cup — is focused on next summer’s Copa America. Inter Miami, which would love to make this year’s playoffs, would also love to ensure Messi is as healthy as can be throughout 2024 and 2025. And Messi himself will have significant say in his availability for those conflicting matches. (Earlier this month, he chose Argentina over Miami, and missed an MLS match against Kansas City.)

The only certainty is that Messi, at some point, needs a break. But the MLS calendar doesn’t really allow for one. If he returns and leads Miami to the playoffs, there’d be a wild-card match four or five days later.

And then a best-of-three series beginning a few days after that.

And then another international break, this one featuring Argentina versus Uruguay and Brazil.

This, in a nutshell, is Inter Miami’s Messi conundrum. They need him healthy. They also need him now, and next week, and every week between now and Dec. 9 if they want to win everything in front of them.

“The week that starts tomorrow, we have three finals,” Martino said Tuesday. “Tomorrow is a final. Saturday [vs. NYCFC] is another final. Chicago [next Wednesday] is another final.”

So, will Messi play Wednesday?

The most likely scenario, it seems, is that Messi begins on the bench, and enters only if necessary — if Miami needs a goal.

When asked how he’d make the decision, Martino said he’d speak with Messi, in addition to the club’s medical staff. “There are three issues here,” he said. “First, the player. Then the final. And then what comes [next].”

He later added: "If it weren't a final, we absolutely wouldn't risk it. [Because] it is a final, there's a chance we take the risk."