Things just aren't the same when you can't rely on arguably the greatest soccer player of all time. With Argentine superstar and World Cup-winner Lionel Messi left off the gameday roster due to a muscle injury, Inter Miami slumped to a 2-1 home loss against the Houston Dynamo in Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final.
Messi, looking somber and melancholic when the camera cut to him in the stands after the final whistle, could do little else but watch as his team failed to find a way to compensate for his gargantuan absence. Coupled with an additional injury for key figure Jordi Alba, Miami were listless during a majority of the championship game.
Houston, likely galvanized by the news that Messi would be unavailable, were by far the more proactive of the two teams in the start to the final. Ambitious and enthusiastic, the Dynamo constantly pressed forward and were dominant with their attacking momentum that led to two goals within the first 33 minutes from Griffin Dorsey and Amine Bassi.
Miami, in comparison, were lost in the early stages. The lack of their Argentine focal point also led to a lack of cohesion. The Florida club were sloppy with possession, fragile in defensive transition, and also poor with many of their mistimed crosses.
Looking good for the Dynamo in that 1st half, but for Inter Miami? Houston, we have a problem. pic.twitter.com/SJAS5VFJa5— Cesar Hernandez (@cesarhfutbol) September 28, 2023
No Messi available to conduct things going forward, Miami didn't manage to create a single shot until the 42nd minute. Up top, striker Leonardo Campana appeared isolated throughout the first half.
The slight silver lining for manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino and his men is that things improved in the second half, although it was too little too late. Through the addition of a more energetic striker like Josef Martínez (among other substitutions) into the mix, Miami began to create more chances in the final third and eventually claimed their lone goal in the 92nd minute from Martinez.
That said, that goal would eventually go down as a consolation prize. Unable to find the back of the net a second time, Miami stumbled to a 2-1 loss that highlighted problems in not only Wednesday's championship game, but also going forward as they attempt a late season sprint into the MLS Cup playoffs.
There are no guarantees about Messi bouncing back quickly either.
"It wasn't wise for him to play [today], that's clear. Not even considering for a few minutes because we would be taking risks," said Martino in the post-game press conference about Messi's injury. "He'll surely play before the league ends...[but] we'll go game by game defining the situation to see when the medical staff tell us that he's fit to play without running risks."
Despite the small sample size, it's no surprise that Miami don't play at the same level without Messi. Since arriving to MLS in the summer, the 36-year-old has maintained an undefeated record in the 12 games in all competitions for Miami that he's been featured in. Along the way, he's racked up a Leagues Cup title and a stunning total of 11 goals and eight assists.
Without Messi, Martino and his players have only been able to clinch one win -- a narrow 3-2 result over Sporting Kansas City -- in the four matches he has been unavailable. In fact, when Messi (and Sergio Busquets and Alba) arrived midseason, Miami were last in MLS' Eastern Conference table.
The immediate boost that Messi provided was a brilliantly dramatic one after winning the Leagues Cup and giving Miami a fighting chance to qualify for the playoffs, but their hopes can still implode during their final five matches of the regular season. Tired and drained, a long list of minutes and games have become a severe hurdle for Martino's players. Even with blockbuster summer additions to Miami's roster, the sheer number of games were going to catch up with the squad that played 16 matches across three competitions in 68 days.
"It's true that at the beginning we began to have a team that offered answers, but we were much fresher physically. The number of games hadn't been accumulated, the number of decisive games hadn't been accumulated," stated Martino.
The remaining path ahead won't be easy. Even if Messi and Alba recover immediately, Miami will still need to go through a grueling run through their final five MLS regular season matches in 22 days. Of those five clashes, one will be against league-leaders FC Cincinnati and two will require away trips to Chicago and Charlotte.
Attempting to recover from their U.S. Open Cup loss, Miami will also have little room for error. Although they're just five points behind a playoff spot within the top nine of the Eastern Conference, all but one team remain ahead of them in the standings. Adding extra mileage and playing time in a short period of time likely won't help the group that appeared fatigued as soon as Wednesday's final started.
"What I saw is a worn-out team, that's the reality," said Martino. "At some point we were going to start suffering the consequences of so many games."
And those games have impacted their biggest star and figure in a crucial period.
A couple months back when Messi first arrived in Miami to much fanfare, the soccer gods at first seemed to look kindly onto the player and his new team. Kicking things off with a Hollywood script-worthy game-winning goal in injury time during his debut in July's Leagues Cup, which paved the path to an eventual trophy in the tournament, a fairy tale in American soccer began to be written as the living legend significantly rejuvenated the team that had once been dead last in MLS.
Confidence, swagger and determination followed as Miami claimed win after win with Messi guiding the way, but as seen in recent days, the near-divine sporting being is still a human one. Needing a rest after the international break earlier this month when he traveled and scored for Argentina in World Cup qualifiers, the veteran wasn't able to rediscover his full fitness with Miami upon return.
By Sept. 20, things took a turn after he needed to be substituted out in the 37th minute of a match against Toronto FC. Slowly walking off the pitch after being unable to continue playing, it was a stark reminder that the aging soccer celebrity isn't immune to exhaustion or physical setbacks.
Messi is expected to return to play in Miami's final stretch in the race to the playoffs, but we still don't know what role he'll have or the minutes he'll earn in the regular season's impending finish. What we do know, as seen on Wednesday and recent games, is that Miami aren't the same without him.