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The sight of Lionel Messi watching Inter Miami games in street clothes is getting disheartening for his teammates and fans, who show up in his shirt and pay inflated prices for tickets to see him play.
Messi sat out the Saturday home game against New York City FC with an unspecified leg injury, the fourth game he missed in the past five. The Argentine star watched in a pink T-shirt as Inter Miami struggled, but then rallied to tie NYCFC 1-1 in extra time with a header by Argentine teenager Tomas “Toto” Aviles to inch a bit closer to the playoff line.
A Florida education and healthcare journalist named Caden DeLisa posted on Twitter Saturday night: “SCOOP: a source indicated that Lionel Messi sustained a 2 cm hamstring tear, confirmed via MRI, likely shutting him down for the remainder of the season.” He later added: “Messi suffered a hamstring strain on international duties, which became a hamstring tear when aggravated during his appearance against Toronto.”
Asked about the report after the game, Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said: “I will repeat what I said before, we are going game by game, we will evaluate him against Chicago [the next game on the road Wednesday]. We didn’t take a risk for a final, we won’t do it now. If against Chicago he is ready to play, to be on the bench, or it would be risky and he has to stay out, he will stay out, and we will do the same against Cincinnati.”
He added that Messi has been training separately from the group, but that he improved in recent days, “feels better each day,” and “time will tell whether what I am saying is true or whether that person who made the report is right.”
The team is off Sunday. The plan is for Messi to train Monday and Tuesday, Martino said, and then they will evaluate whether he can travel to Chicago after speaking to the medical staff. Martino said it was too early to know the answer.
“Certainly, I am the most interested in Leo being well, Jordi [Alba] being well, and Diego Gomez. But unfortunately, we cannot count on them in this most important part of the season,” said Martino, who said Leo Campana might be added to the injury list after displaying signs of leg discomfort during Saturday’s game.
The coach said despite having to settle for ties against Orlando and NYCFC in recent weeks, he was proud of the team’s grit and never-say-die attitude.
Just when it seemed Miami would lose and fall way behind in the playoff race, Argentine teen Aviles, the lanky center back, leaped up to connect with a Robert Taylor cross and headed the ball into the net in the fifth minute of added time. It was Miami’s only shot on target of the 12 the team took all night, and it gave the crowd of 20,135 something to celebrate.
Miami had a chance to win, but a David Ruiz blast hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced out just before the final whistle.
Santi Rodriguez had given New York the lead in the 77th minute in a game that was delayed an hour due to lightning.
Inter Miami Playoff Situation
A victory would have earned Miami three much-needed points and closed the gap to two points from the playoff line with four games remaining. Instead, Inter Miami got just one point and sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, four points and four spots behind Montreal, which holds the final spot.
Miami likely must win its final four games, beginning Wednesday on the road against the Chicago Fire, and will need some help from other teams.
After going on a 12-game unbeaten streak with Messi in July, August and the first weekend of September, Inter Miami has two wins, two losses and two ties without him.
A huge segment of fans showed up wearing Messi’s No. 10 jersey, and hundreds of them lined up along parking lot barricades two hours before kickoff hoping to catch a glimpse of the Argentine star on the team bus as it entered the stadium gate.
They did not get their wish.
Messi showed up just before the scheduled start of the game in street clothes, as he did the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday, which Miami lost 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo.
After scoring 11 goals during Inter Miami’s 12-game unbeaten streak, Messi has played just 37 minutes since the 3-1 road victory against Los Angeles FC on Sept. 3. He missed the game against Kansas City while on national team duty and has missed four of the next five matches with an unspecified leg injury.
He skipped the road trip to Atlanta, returned to the starting lineup at home against Toronto FC, but asked to come out after 37 minutes, bothered by an old leg injury, according to Martino.
Messi went out to the training field later than the rest of the team Friday morning, just as the media viewing session ended, so it is unknown if he went through a full workout. Martino said he trained separately and showed improvement, but not enough to play Saturday.
Jordi Alba was also missing for the second consecutive game due to a hamstring injury. DeAndre Yedlin sat out due to suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Martino said the injuries are a result of the jam-packed schedule Inter Miami has played since he took over the team in mid-July between the runs to the Leagues Cup title, U.S. Open Cup final and MLS league games. The team has averaged a game every four days during that stretch.
“It is really crazy the number of games we have played,” he said. “Most have been critical games, which are draining physically and mentally. What our team did (against NYCFC) was valiant. We were missing key players and we kept fighting, kept trying to salvage the game. When we took over this team was in last place and these young men have put us in position to have a chance at the playoffs. The Chicago game will be extremely critical.”