Lionel Messi’s debut season in Major League Soccer didn’t have the fairytale ending associated with Hollywood. His Inter Miami team’s playoff hopes were dashed after a 1-0 defeat at home to FC Cincinnati on Saturday.
In addition, DC United also missed out on a playoff spot, and they immediately announced the departure of their English manager, former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, in a “mutual agreement.”
Messi returned from injury as a substitute in the 55th minute, but Cincinnati, who secured the top seed in the playoffs, secured the victory with a goal from Argentine Alvaro Barreal.
Messi’s impact on the field was minimal, and despite having two free-kick opportunities within his shooting range, both of his attempts missed the target.
Miami’s head coach, Gerardo Martino, acknowledged that Messi lacked match fitness, saying, “I could see that he was lacking football (game time). The injury is fine, he doesn’t have any problems, but (his performance was) logical because in recent times he has played very little and it could happen that he is lacking in rhythm, which is also why he only played 32 or 33 minutes.”
With other results going against Miami, Messi’s team found themselves second to bottom in the Eastern Conference, seven points away from the last playoff spot with only two games remaining.
Messi had played just 37 minutes for his club since September 3 due to an injury he sustained while on international duty with Argentina last month. Without him, Miami struggled, and their form suffered after winning the Leagues Cup title in August, a tournament where Messi had shone and earned his first trophy since joining the club in July.
Saturday’s loss marked Miami’s second consecutive defeat following their 4-1 loss to Chicago on Wednesday, and Martino’s team had only managed one win in their last six MLS games. Messi had played in the only win during that period, coming off in the first half of their 4-0 victory over bottom-placed Toronto.
After their Leagues Cup victory in Nashville on August 19, there was optimism about Miami potentially adding two more trophies to their season, but without Messi, they lost the US Open Cup final to Houston and gradually dropped out of contention in the league.
Reflecting on the season, Martino, who took over just before Messi’s arrival, said, “Honestly, I expected the season to be exactly the opposite of what happened. My expectations were to put the group together, shape it football-wise, not transcend too much in the Leagues Cup, compete well in the Cup (US Open Cup), and qualify for the playoffs, but it was exactly the opposite as it usually happens when a coach thinks something.”
Miami’s final two games are both against Charlotte, with the last one taking place on the road on October 21. Whether Messi, who has been called up for Argentina’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers, will feature in these games remains uncertain.
In a separate development, Wayne Rooney’s DC United failed to qualify for the playoffs despite defeating New York City FC 2-0 in their final game of the season. Rooney’s departure was announced shortly after the match.
In the Western Conference, the five-time MLS champions Los Angeles Galaxy also missed out on the playoffs after a 5-2 defeat to Minnesota United. Finnish striker Teemu Pukki scored four second-half goals for Minnesota.
Finally, Austin, who was beaten by Los Angeles FC in the Western Conference final last year, suffered another disappointment at the hands of LAFC with a 4-2 loss at home to the champions, ending their post-season hopes. Gabon international Denis Bouanga scored twice for LAFC, solidifying his position as the league’s leading scorer with 19 goals. US Open Cup winners Houston boosted their hopes of a top-four finish and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a convincing 5-1 win over Colorado, in which Nelson Quinones scored twice.