Messi’s absence from US Open Cup final always takes its toll – The Guardian

Lionel Messi reached his breaking point. At least for now. The Argentine has been remarkably durable throughout his club and international career. But at 36, 12 fascinating games in two months proved too much for his new club – after a season with PSG punctuated by their World Cup triumph in which he played every single minute.

Inter Miami therefore had to forego the blockbuster acquisition for what was probably the biggest game in the club’s history. In Wednesday night’s US Open Cup final, an exhausted team lost 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo in Fort Lauderdale. Messi could only watch from the stands.

The absence was not entirely unexpected. Messi had not trained with his teammates on Tuesday and was not on the team bus that arrived at the stadium. Hopes of a cameo began to fade and 50 minutes before kick-off the team list made it official: “10. “L. “Messi” wasn’t even among the substitutes. That put a damper on the pre-game fireworks.

But the energetic Houston team, the surprise team in the MLS Western Conference this season, was motivated from the first whistle and overwhelmed Miami. The Texans took a 2-0 lead in the first half and looked more likely to extend it before Josef Martinez scored a consolation in the 92nd minute that gave Miami hope that their performance was not justified.

Inter had been tight-lipped about their star’s fitness all week, with coach Tata Martino publicly reflecting on the risk, despite a suspected hamstring problem which the coach described only as a “problem with his old scar tissue”. This suggested that the problem was wear and tear and not a new disease.

Perhaps the Florida club didn’t risk having vacancies at the final by officially excluding the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. After the defeat, Martino said there was never a chance Messi would play. However, he stated that the player would return before the end of the season.

“Well, that wasn’t smart [Messi] play. Not even thinking about it for a few minutes,” he said in post-match comments, in which he attributed his team’s subpar performance to fatigue. “Yes, he will play before the league is over. We will check from game to game together with the medical department what happens next to see whether he can play without further risks.”

There is still little clarity about the injury itself, but based on this evidence, Messi’s absence, if prolonged, would completely hurt Miami’s chances of making the MLS Cup playoffs. While the former Barcelona player has scored 11 goals since joining the club and is yet to taste defeat, Miami has only managed one win in the four games he has missed

Still, it’s surprising how involved Messi has been since arriving in Miami in July. Instant success brought Leagues Cup glory (Miami’s first-ever trophy), a berth in the US Open Cup final, and the opportunity to advance to postseason contention.

Maybe it’s the injury breakdown that’s causing the bill to come due.

Clearly the protocols could have been managed more efficiently. Messi has completed 90 minutes eight times – and even managed 120 minutes in the US Open Cup semi-final win against Cincinnati. He played 78 minutes in another start and 38 minutes in his famous debut against Liga MX’s Cruz Azul on July 21.

In a World Cup qualifier for Argentina this month, he logged another 89 minutes before being “rested” for the second game. Since then, he missed the 5-2 MLS loss in Atlanta, limped off the pitch in the 37th minute against Toronto and sat out last weekend’s draw in Orlando. It is unclear when he will return. Miami doesn’t just have to think about Messi. Their two best players besides Messi are Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, who are 35 and 34 years old respectively. Alba also missed Wednesday’s game because of what Martino described as “muscle fatigue.”

But external demands made it impossible for Inter Miami to play without Messi until he was physically no longer able to play. Fans in the US paid hundreds of dollars over quota for tickets. MLS, its other clubs, broadcasters and sponsors all sought to capitalize on a commitment that required unprecedented concessions or investments from all.

While this would not be popular with many stakeholders, perhaps keeping Messi out for the remainder of the season would be a wise decision. His lucrative contract runs until December 2025. He will remain in Miami for two more full seasons, well past his 38th birthday. His health must be protected if he wants to go through with this deal.

To secure a place in the playoffs, Inter would have to play near perfect, and based on Wednesday night’s performance, Messi would have to play a lot more football over the next three weeks.

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Although Miami still has games ahead of several other teams, they still have five games left in the regular season to close a five-point deficit and move up five spots in the standings from 14th to ninth – the final qualifying spot in the Eastern Conference. This is currently evidenced by Saturday visitors in New York City. This result can have a major impact on future planning.

In a sense, Miami has fallen victim to Messi’s instant influence. Fans may not have swapped the glorious memories of a storming League Cup success for this domestic triumph. However, the resulting spate of games ultimately cost the club the temporary prosperity of its remarkable takeover and Wednesday night’s final.

Overall, Miami is doing well. A triumph in the US Open Cup would have been significant for the franchise in its fourth year. However, the prize of Concacaf Champions League qualification for next season was already secured by the League Cup. Miami will move straight into the round of 16, where Messi will once again be asked to perform at his best.

Experienced coach Martino – formerly Messi’s coach at Barcelona and Argentina and a former MLS Cup winner at Atlanta – is a hugely significant improvement over Phil Neville, who was sacked in June after Inter finished bottom of the conference.

Martino’s possession-based approach is better suited to the Florida heat and summer MLS play. Busquets remains a puppet master in midfield and Alba has impressed. The underperforming strikers Leo Campana and Robert Taylor have raised their level. Goalkeeper Drake Callender has been in excellent form and 18-year-old local teenager Benjamin Cremaschi recently made his debut for the US national team. The upcoming off-season will provide the club’s sporting director, Chris Henderson, with the opportunity to further grow the club and now make it the most attractive destination in the MLS.

Ahead of the final, talented Dynamo coach Ben Olsen said his club felt “invisible” amid Messi mania. In fact, Houston has risen almost unnoticed in the league this season, cleverly anchoring the team around excellent Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera. They are in the playoffs and are only two points behind the summit of the Western Conference.

As his team led the US Open Cup through Messi’s home stadium on Wednesday night, Olsen’s team was clearly visible in the absence of the main attraction. “They were missing a player or two, but I don’t really care,” Olsen remarked afterwards. He shouldn’t do it either.

As indispensable and in-demand as Messi is, Miami must now handle him carefully.