Toronto FC leaves for Florida on Tuesday for a mid-week game at Inter Miami, wondering whether Lionel Messi will be waiting at DRV PNK Stadium.
After leading Miami to the Leagues Cup title and the U.S. Open Cup final, the Argentine star has sat out the last two MLS games. Miami coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino said the decision to hold out Messi was “because he has muscular fatigue and it was prudent to leave him.”
Martino told reporters Friday he will avoid overworking the 36-year-old Messi during a busy portion of the team’s schedule.
"If he is well and confident he can get to play and if this doesn't happen he will wait a few more days," said the Argentine coach.
Toronto, like most everyone else, is in wait-and-see mode ahead of Wednesday's contest in Fort Lauderdale.
"We're hoping to see Messi," Toronto interim coach Terry Dunfield said Monday. "I think since he's come to the league, his work has been incredible. Not only individually but how he's risen the stock of Inter Miami and then his teammates around him but also the stock of the league."
Miami is coming off a 5-2 weekend loss at Atlanta with Messi not making the trip.
But the former Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain icon still made headlines, via a video posted on Instagram (he has 486 million followers) where he talked up the pizza — a pie complete with a generous array of tomato slices — from Banchero Miami, an Argentine restaurant in Miami Beach.
That drew a lineup to the restaurant and a social media post from Atlanta United after Saturday night's win over Miami. The Atlanta post showed a picture of a pizza with tomato slices shaped like an L as its toppings.
Atlanta United savoured the victory, played before a crowd of 71,635 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — many of whom had gone hoping to see Messi.
"Tell ‘em to bring the whole squad next time," the club said in a cheeky post announcing the game result on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter.
The loss in Atlanta ended a 12-game unbeaten streak (8-0-4, with three of the ties turning into penalty shootout cup wins) for Miami in all competitions. That included Miami's successful seven-game run to the Leagues Cup title and a penalty shootout win over league-leading Cincinnati in U.S. Open Cup semifinal play.
Miami has outscored the opposition 31-13 in the 11 games that Messi has played in. Messi has been involved in 19 of those goals (11 goals, eight assists).
Messi saw action in all eight cup games, starting seven of them, with 10 goals and six assists.
He has played in three league games to date, with one goal and two assists. He made his MLS debut on the road against the New York Red Bulls, scoring off the bench in a 2-0 win on Aug. 26.
Messi last played Sept. 3 in a 3-1 league win at Los Angeles FC that saw him set up Miami's last two goals.
He watched Argentina’s World Cup qualifying win at Bolivia from the bench last Tuesday. Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni said Messi was not feeling well.
Despite its cup success, Miami (8-15-4) languishes in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, six points ahead of Toronto (4-14-10). It is seven points out of ninth place, which represents the last chance at the playoffs via a wild-card spot, with seven games remaining.
And while Miami is looking to climb the league ladder, it is also prioritizing the Sept. 27 U.S. Open Cup final against the Houston Dynamo, which follows the game against Toronto and Sunday's visit to Orlando City.
“We will be careful with him because we have a lot of important games in a short span,” said Martino.
Veteran Toronto attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez still expects to see Messi on Wednesday.
"I think he's going to be ready Wednesday because he plays in front of his fans again. And also because they can't miss more points," said the 36-year-old Spaniard, who rose through the ranks with Messi at Barcelona's famed youth academy.
"They need the points … we really need it also," he added. "That's why I say it's going to be a fun game for us and for the supporters."
Toronto won 2-0 when the teams played March 18 at BMO Field, the fourth game of the season for TFC. Both teams have changed considerably since then, with Toronto under new management and Miami reinforced by Messi and Spanish stars Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.
"We're at a stage right now when our focus can be on use," said Dunfield. "But we'll definitely take some of the learnings from their previous games to guide some of our principles."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press