Lionel Messi’s injury casts a shadow over the US Open Cup Final and vital MLS matches, threatening the club’s season

The club’s campaign could be all-but over by the weekend as they prepare for a cup final and season-defining league games

Miami gfx Messi do-or-die

When we look back at Inter Miami’s season, Lionel Messi’s first with the club, we’ll likely look back at this week as the one that decided it all. The Leagues Cup triumph of the summer will ensure this season is a success, as will the seismic signing of Messi, but can they make it something even more? We’ll likely find out over the next four days.

The Open Cup is only the beginning, though. After Wednesday, Miami will have little time to celebrate or commiserate, as their miracle push towards the MLS playoffs continues this Saturday in a make-or-break match against New York City FC.

Their place in the standings makes things hard enough but, making matters worse, they’ll likely have to do it without Messi leading the charge. An injury has the Argentine’s status in doubt as Miami’s season sits on the brink.

So can Miami produce another miracle, or will the magic finally run out? We’ll find out soon enough…

Messi injury 2023

It has to be said: what Miami has accomplished this season has been nothing short of miraculous. On the field, off the field… all of it. The club has already built something completely unfathomable just a few months ago.

That Leagues Cup run was spurred on by Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, who instantly turned a last-place team into a force. They weren’t alone, as the club brought in plenty of young talent alongside them, but it was the ex-Barcelona trio that truly began Miami’s shift.

Unfortunately for Miami, they could be without two of those three for the Open Cup final, and potentially longer. Messi has been dealing with an injury since the international break, forcing him to miss two of the club’s last three games. His last appearance was cut short, too, as he lasted less than a half against Toronto FC before being forced off.

The same can be said for Alba, who, unlike Messi, has essentially been ruled out of the Open Cup final. “We will wait until tomorrow,” coach Tata Martino said ahead of the match. “Jordi is difficult but with Messi we will wait until tomorrow.”

“If it’s not a final, we’re not taking any risks,” he added. “This is a final and it could bring you a title. It could take 90 or 120 minutes, but if it’s another game we wouldn’t risk it.”

Added Busquets: “Clearly, it’s a handicap not having the best player in the world and the difference-maker on our team, but we will wait until tomorrow and hopefully there is a chance he can be there to help us. And if not, surely other players will step up and help us be the better team.”

Lionel Messi Inter Miami MLS

Since Messi walked off the field against Toronto FC, the question has lingered: should he have been there in the first place? Did Miami risk too much?

Hindsight, is of course, 20/20, which Martino admits. If he knew what condition Messi would end up being in, he probably would have held him out. The decision to play him may have come with the best intentions, but it may have also been the one to derail Miami’s season.

“Sometimes it’s difficult because between the medical staff, the player, the coaching staff, we all talk. He felt good in the 48 hours before the game, he did everything that was needed and finally what happened, happened,” Martino said. “It’s much easier to look back, but we don’t know that in advance. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we make mistakes.”

The fact is that Miami have not lost when Messi has played, either as a starter or substitute. Their one defeat came against Atlanta in a match where Messi was unfit to play. So now, as they stare down the possibility of a cup final without their talismanic superstar, the question now becomes: can they do it without him?

As Martino says, cup finals are a bit different. They’re the type of games that define a season, for better or worse. A bad season can turn into a success with some silverware involved, while a good season can be derailed if a club ends it all with nothing to show for it.

Miami already have one trophy in hand: the Leagues Cup. However, if they can capture a second? This season goes down in history.

In their way stands the Dynamo, a team that has undergone something of their own resurgence. The Dynamo have been, in head coach Ben Olsen’s own words, “irrelevant” for the last decade. They’ve been perennial losers, having fallen off a cliff after being a true contender for the first decade of the new millennium.

Under Olsen, though, things are changing. The club sits fourth in the Western Conference, led by their star midfielder, Mexico international Hector Herrera. And, just as importantly, they’ve battled all the way to this cup final as they look to get their hands on the trophy for the second time.

Standing in their way will be Inter Miami, who will be desperate to get their hands on a second trophy of the season. Making the desperation even more real is the fact that this may just be their last chance to compete for silverware this season.

Messi Busquets Jordi Alba Inter Miami

There will be no rest for Inter Miami after Wednesday. The celebration, or the sadness, won’t last too long into the night. There are bigger challenges just around the corner.

After Wednesday’s cup final, Miami will have around 72 hours to prepare for their next task: a miracle push towards the MLS playoffs. As things stand, the club sits five points out of a playoff place with five teams ahead of them to leapfrog. The good news is that Miami have a game or two in hand on most of the teams above them; the bad news is that they’ll have only five games of their own to make up the gap.

Any slip up can be, and probably will be, catastrophic. It begins this Saturday against NYCFC, the team currently holding that final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Then will come a visit to Chicago, one of the teams above them. By then, we’ll likely know if this team is dead in the water or not ahead of a clash with Supporters’ Shield-bound FC Cincinnati and a double-header with Charlotte FC to close the season.

The game against NYCFC could very well be the decider. A loss there will almost certainly end Miami’s season. A draw, too, may not be enough to save them. The Open Cup is one test, a one-off game with a trophy on the line. But if the Herons want a chance to compete for a third trophy, the biggest of them all, MLS Cup, they’ll need to survive what comes after.

Manager Gerardo Martino of Inter Miami CF

It’s an old cliche: every game is a cup final. It’s said to illustrate the importance of a match. Whether there’s a trophy on the line or not, coaches lean on this to show what a game will mean to their team and their season.

In this case, though, it rings true. Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final isn’t the only final Miami are playing this week; every match on the schedule now could prove their most meaningful game of the season.

“We have three finals coming up, starting tomorrow,” Martino said. “Tomorrow is a final, then Saturday is another final and then Chicago’s a final. The objectives, we’re going to face them in the same manner as they arrive. Now, we’re taking care of this by trying to do the best thing.

“In Orlando, it was a very important match for us too, especially knowing that out of the games with New York City and Chicago, they will increase or lower possibilities for the playoffs. It’s very difficult. We leave aside some objectives. I think that the league objective is the most difficult one but having gotten to where we have, we’re going to continue attempting it.”

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