Lionel Messi returns, then exits Inter Miami match early with mysterious 'fatigue'

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - SEPTEMBER 20: Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) collects a pass during the match between Toronto FC and Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lionel Messi left Inter Miami's Wednesday game against Toronto FC in the 37th minute due to what head coach Tata Martino later described as "fatigue."

Messi, who missed two games last week due to fitness concerns, returned to Miami's starting lineup. But with around 10 minutes remaining in a then-scoreless first half, he pulled off the captain's armband and walked slowly toward the sideline in apparent discomfort and frustration.

Miami roared to a 4-0 victory in his absence, but Messi's status overshadowed the win. Martino said there was "no chance" he'd play Sunday in Orlando.

As for next Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final against Houston, Martino was non-committal; Messi and Jordi Alba — who also left Wednesday's game in the first half with "fatigue" — will be evaluated "day to day."

"I know we have a final to play," Martino added, "but they won’t go near the pitch if they can’t play."

As Messi trudged toward the sideline, he pulled down his socks, took off his shinguards and unlaced his boots. He initially headed to the bench, where he leaned back, seemingly exhausted or exasperated. He then walked back to the locker room with eight minutes remaining in first-half stoppage time, accompanied by only his bodyguard.

It was not immediately clear whether Messi was injured or simply fatigued. Even Martino seemed a bit uncertain. Martino, speaking at his postmatch news conference, called it "a scar from an old injury that’s bothering him.”

Messi initially felt the discomfort two weeks ago toward the end of Argentina's World Cup qualifier against Ecuador. He then sat out a second qualifier five days later in Bolivia. Scans that week showed no signs of a muscle injury, Martino said, but Miami chose to rest him again Saturday versus Atlanta.

Messi and Alba, whose situation is similar, trained ahead of the Toronto game, and seemed "fit to play," Martino said. But both exited within three minutes of each other late in the first half.

"I believe the situation is the same [as last week], that there isn’t a muscle injury," Martino said. "But I’m saying this based on a conversation I had with [Messi], not because we’ve done scans. We have to wait and perhaps be even more cautious."

Martino had previously spoken about managing Messi's minutes with a view toward the U.S. Open Cup final, which could yield Inter its second trophy in as many months.

“One of my responsibilities as the coach is to care for my players and help them make the hard decisions that will give us the best chance of keeping everyone healthy during this busy run,” he said.

But Wednesday's substitution was not pre-planned, Martino confirmed postgame.

The plan, rather, seemed to be for Messi to return Wednesday and perhaps play 60 or 75 minutes; then rest again Sunday; and then start the Open Cup final. Now his availability for the final, and for the rest of Miami's playoff push, is up in the air.

Inter Miami's playoff path

A few minutes after Messi headed down the tunnel, Facundo Farias scored to put Miami ahead 1-0. Robert Taylor then scored a second after halftime to double the lead. Benjamin Cremaschi later added a third, Taylor slammed in a fourth, and Inter cruised to a victory over the league's worst team.

The 4-0 win pulled Miami up the Eastern Conference standings, to within five points of ninth place and a playoff berth, with six league games remaining.

Those six games will come fast. Miami will play the first four of them, plus the USOC final, in a span of 14 days.

That stretch will lead right into another international break — when Messi might travel again to South America for World Cup qualifiers. The final two MLS games — the first of which Messi might miss because Argentina plays at Peru a day earlier — are both against Charlotte, a fellow playoff bubble team, on Oct. 18 and 21.