FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi says he will play in Inter Miami’s season finale on Saturday, although the club hasn’t confirmed that is the actual plan.
Messi — who scored both goals for Argentina in its 2-0 World Cup qualifying win at Peru on Tuesday night — wasn’t in the lineup for Inter Miami’s final home game of its Major League Soccer season against Charlotte on Wednesday night.
Messi, dressed casually in a white T-shirt, was in the Inter Miami bench area with his teammates for Wednesday’s match after returning from Peru earlier in the day.
Not playing on Wednesday was expected. This part was not: Messi told reporters in Peru that he wants to play once more for Inter Miami before his inaugural MLS season ends, which means he’s intending to play in Charlotte on Saturday — even though that match will be played on artificial turf.
“I’ll play the game that is left now,” said Messi, who played all 90 minutes of Tuesday’s match — a good sign after battling a leg injury for the last several weeks.
The notion of Messi playing might not necessarily be what Charlotte wanted to hear, given what will be at stake on the final day of the regular season. Charlotte wasted a pair of one-goal leads and tied Miami 2-2 on Wednesday, missing out on a chance to climb from 12th to 8th in the Eastern Conference. The top nine teams in each conference make the playoffs.
Enzo Copetti and Kerwin Vargas scored for Charlotte. Nicolas Stefanelli and Robbie Robinson scored for Inter Miami, which could still thwart Charlotte’s playoff plans with a win on Saturday depending on how other results on Decision Day in MLS goes. Charlotte stayed 12th, and now needs a win and some help to make the postseason.
Inter Miami was eliminated from MLS playoff contention earlier this month. Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said earlier this week that there was “a chance” Messi could play Saturday, and that the team would evaluate where he’s at physically upon his return to Miami following the qualifying games with Argentina.
He said after Wednesday’s match that he was sticking to that approach. Martino heard what Messi said, but didn’t fully commit to his captain playing Saturday.
“Tomorrow we’ll talk with him, but the most important thing here is the 90 minutes that were played … that he felt well, and he was confident and not worried about his injury,” Martino said. “We’ll talk again to see if he’s ready to play again.”
Even the hope of Messi playing seems to be a big boost to ticket sales. Charlotte has sold more than 60,000 tickets in its 74,000-seat stadium for Saturday’s match, The Charlotte Observer reported Wednesday.
Inter Miami’s home finale came on the same day the MLS Players Association revealed that Messi’s annualized compensation from his MLS contract with the team is just over $20.4 million. That’s more than the entire payroll of all but three other MLS teams and twice as much as every player combined on Orlando City.
The 36-year-old star has a $12 million base salary and total guaranteed compensation of $20,446,667, the players association said in its 2023 salary update. Inter Miami says Messi’s contract, a 2 1/2-year deal that runs through the 2025 season, is worth about $150 million. The MLS figures do not account for any additional agreements with the team or its affiliates, or for any performance bonuses.
Messi’s commitment to Argentina for World Cup qualifying would have kept him out of Wednesday’s match — which was a rescheduled game, after both teams went deep in the Leagues Cup tournament and needed to move the matchup — anyway. With Saturday being meaningless in the standings, it was assumed that Inter Miami would take no unnecessary risks with Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s top player. And it seems very likely that Messi will become an eight-time winner of that award when this year’s recipient is announced in Paris on Oct. 30.
Messi is also expected to play in Inter Miami’s colors on Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, when the team plays two exhibition matches in China. It’ll be the first time Inter Miami goes on a foreign tour. Argentina then has more World Cup qualifiers on Nov. 16 and Nov. 21 — after which Messi should get an extended break before Inter Miami begins preparing for 2024.
Messi has 11 goals in 13 matches with Inter Miami this season. The team has gone 8-1-4 when he plays; seven of those matches were on the team’s run to win its first-ever trophy by claiming the Leagues Cup championship. He has also appeared in five MLS games and one U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
But a leg injury derailed his season, and essentially ended Inter Miami’s chances of making the postseason. Miami is now 1-3-3 in seven matches without Messi since he joined the club. He was able to play as a reserve on Oct. 7 against Cincinnati, but Inter Miami lost 1-0 in the outcome that sealed its playoff elimination.
AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.
AP MLS: https://apnews.com/hub/major-league-soccer