Lionel Messi has mesmerized fans around the world in his first month with Inter Miami, scoring 10 goals while leading the team to eight consecutive victories, a Leagues Cup trophy and a berth in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Now comes perhaps the most daunting challenge for the Argentine icon since his arrival in the United States: Can he dig his resurgent pink-clad team out of the Major League Soccer basement and into the playoffs?
After taking a one-month hiatus to play cup tournaments, Inter Miami resumes MLS play on Saturday on the road against the New York Red Bulls. It will be the league debut for Messi. That is, assuming he plays.
Coach Tata Martino has been hinting that Messi and a few other starters may need a break after a jam-packed schedule the past few weeks.
Miami played four games in the past 12 days, three of them on the road, and has another three games over the next nine days — at the Red Bulls on Saturday, at home against Nashville on Wednesday, on the road against Los Angeles FC on Sept. 2.
Messi played the full 90 minutes in the past six games and went 120 against Cincinnati on Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. After that game, Martino addressed the issue of load management for his players, including Messi, who is 36.
“Leo and many other players are reaching an important physical limit and from this point forward, we will have to evaluate how we approach these next three games,” Martino said.
Asked Friday afternoon at the team hotel whether Messi would play Saturday, Martino would not commit, saying: “We will see after training [Friday night], after we talk to the players. They have been resting since the Cincinnati game, with just a light training session at the hotel.”
Martino said he detected some fatigue in his team from the start of the Cincinnati game on Wednesday.
There is pressure on Messi to play, as it is the first league game since the break, the New York area is a high-profile market, the league and other corporate sponsors are headquartered in New York City, and ticket prices for the game at Red Bull Arena (7:30 p.m., Apple TV MLS Season Pass) are going from $350 to $5,000.
The game is such a big deal it will be shown live by Apple TV on an enormous screen in Times Square.
A few hundred fans, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero, waited for hours behind barricades set up around the team hotel Friday afternoon.
Martino insists he will not let external influences affect his decision on Messi’s playing time.
“I understand the expectations the rest of the world has to watch him, that is undeniable,” he said. “But I cannot act based on that because if I do I would risk doing things wrong. The only thing I am concerned about if is he is able to play. Throughout his career, he has always wanted to play every game and sometimes you have to convince him to stop so he can recover, but I don’t pay attention to external pressures when it comes to deciding if he should play or not.”
The coach pointed out that Messi will likely miss games when he is on international duty with the Argentine national team next month, and the team must figure out ways to play without him on occasion.
“I understand we have a big load with the restart of the league schedule coming off all the cup games we played, reaching the Leagues Cup final and playing the U.S. Open Cup semifinal,” Martino said. “And we have to take that seriously, but we have had a lot to handle the past month and a half, and we must see how the players feel. Some ended the Cincinnati game with minor injuries, and tired, so that will factor in my decision on Saturday’s roster.”
He stressed that the results of the first three league games this week will help determine whether their goal of reaching the playoffs is realistic.
Despite the team’s undefeated record in cup games since Messi’s arrival, Inter Miami sits dead last in 15th place in the MLS Eastern Conference with just 18 points from the first 22 games of the regular season, which is also the worst record in the entire league. The Red Bulls are in 11th place with 29 points.
There are 12 games remaining. The top nine in each conference reach the playoffs. The ninth-place finisher last season had 42 points, so if things play out similarly this year, Miami likely needs to earn 24 more points to reach the playoff line. Messi and his teammates would have probably have to win at least eight of their final 12 games.
It is a tall order even for the best player in the world.
But not impossible.
The last MLS team to make such a dramatic turnaround was D.C. United after the arrival of English star Wayne Rooney in 2018. That team had 17 points before his arrival at midseason and earned 34 points over the final 16 games to reach the playoffs.
Miami midfielder David Ruiz feels the team is fit for the challenge and admits he did not expect the team to bond so quickly and have such immediate success with the arrival of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it would be so quick, but playing with the best player in the world is just crazy how everything changes, and playing with one of the best midfielders, one of the best left backs,” Ruiz said. “They’ve helped everybody. We all had to get better, be on time, be more responsible. A lot has changed and it’s incredible.”
Martino added: “We have been able to win all eight games so far, but now comes the big question: Whether Inter Miami will be capable of reaching the playoffs. We will start finding out the answer on Saturday.”