Time almost has run out for Inter Miami to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, so all eyes will turn to Lionel Messi when the club hosts FC Cincinnati on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Messi aggravated a scar tissue injury in his leg on Sept. 7 when playing for Argentina in a World Cup qualifying match. He tried to play in Miami’s win over Toronto FC on Sept. 20 but exited after 37 minutes and hasn’t played since.
In that time, he’s missed the U.S. Open Cup final (which Miami lost 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo) and three MLS matches, in which Miami went 0-1-2, most recently falling 4-1 at the Chicago Fire.
The Herons (9-16-6, 33 points) need Messi now more than ever. Though they sit 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, they are just five points below the playoff line and have at least one match in hand on most teams in front of them.
Inter Miami coach Tata Martino and Messi’s friend and teammate Sergio Busquets both indicated earlier in the week that Messi was on the verge of returning. That remained the message Friday.
“You have to evaluate him … (Thursday and Friday) he trained. Surely after training we will make a decision, but every day it gets better,” Miami assistant coach Javier Morales told reporters in Spanish on Friday.
No small task awaits them. FC Cincinnati (19-5-8, 65 points) are the best team in the league and have already clinched the Supporters’ Shield.
Cincinnati entered the league in 2019 and finished 14th in the Eastern Conference just two seasons ago.
After coach Pat Noonan rotated seven new players into his starting lineup Wednesday, Cincinnati’s four-match unbeaten streak ended with a 2-1 home loss to the New York Red Bulls.
“There were guys that were deserving of minutes, and you kind of just play or make decisions based on just the moment and where we’re at,” Noonan said. “So we’ve just secured the Shield and knowing that we have to turn it around quickly against Miami, it was how can we go through this three-game stretch without pushing guys too far.”
Luciano Acosta scored on a penalty kick for his 16th goal of the season, but he still fell behind Denis Bouanga in the MLS Golden Boot race. The Los Angeles FC forward’s hat trick Wednesday catapulted him to 17 goals. Both men have two matches left to play.