FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The show that was supposed to be Lionel Messi’s became a showcase for one of Major League Soccer’s other hottest teams.
Some 20,000 fans came to DRV PNK Stadium on Wednesday to see one man. They wore his famous name and No. 10 across Inter Miami jerseys, and across Barcelona, Argentina and PSG shirts. They came from far and wide, and paid lucrative sums, to witness greatness.
Instead, Messi joined them in a stadium seat. And the Houston Dynamo won the 2023 U.S. Open Cup final, 2-1.
Messi had been dealing with a mysterious injury, something related to “scar tissue” and “fatigue.” Still, many of the 20,000 who descended on Fort Lauderdale, who queued outside stadium gates hours before kickoff, expected him to have a go at a second American trophy. Even Houston Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen did. “We’re pretty sure he’ll play,” Olsen said Monday.
But when they gathered at the southwest corner of this bare-bones stadium to welcome the Inter Miami bus, and craned their necks to glimpse their hero, he never appeared.
When lineups were released and word spread slowly, via smartphones, through a buzzing concourse, the mood seemed to dampen.
When 22 players paraded onto the field a little before 8:30, in Section 131, a young kid scanned the 11 in pink jerseys, and asked with a hint of concern: “Where’s Messi?”
“Messi no juega,” a teenager one row down told him. Messi isn’t playing. The younger kid’s eyebrows rose in shock.
Both wore Messi jerseys. So did thousands of others inside the ground, where a variety of similar interactions surely occurred. Fears over Messi’s fitness had clouded the buildup to the final. The conventional wisdom, though, was that Messi would at least come on as a substitute, if needed in the second half.
He instead arrived in all-black street clothes, not even on the bench, and settled into the type of seat typically reserved for celebrities who’ve come to watch him.
Many of the 20,000 eventually turned their attention to the game, and turned DRV PNK Stadium into a cauldron. Some still sought out Messi from afar, and whipped out camera phones to take his picture from a distance.
Argentinean TV broadcast TyC Sports trained a camera on his stationary, pensive face, and affixed it as a picture-in-picture to the bottom left corner of their telecast.
Inter Miami, of course, was focused on winning without him, but midway through the first half, the Dynamo took control.
They took the lead with a brilliant counter-attack, punctuated by right back Griffin Dorsey with a thumping finish.
They doubled the lead nine minutes later from the penalty spot, and entered halftime up 2-0.
It was the exact situation that would’ve called for Messi’s magic. But he wasn’t available.
It’s still unclear precisely why. And it’s now unclear what Miami’s season will come to. Head coach Tata Martino has essentially refused to say that Messi is “injured.” But Messi has now missed or exited seven consecutive games between club and country. Martino had indicated that Wednesday night would be the night to take a risk. But he didn’t take it.
Miami has five MLS games remaining and a five-point gap to erase to make the playoffs and save the rest of its season. Messi ignited that season, and engineered a Leagues Cup title run. But now, with Messi sidelined, their momentum has fizzled.
They have won multiple MLS games without their main man, and looked far better in the second half. Josef Martinez gave the game life with a stoppage-time goal. “Si se puede!” the Miami fans chanted.
But Inter couldn’t find a second. And of course, they are not the same team without the greatest player ever.
They were largely outclassed by a Houston squad that is rising in the Western Conference. And their schedule simply won’t relent. They play NYCFC, a fellow playoff bubble team, on Saturday. They go to Chicago for another so-called playoff six-pointer early next week, and then host top-of-the-table Cincinnati next weekend.
Their dedicated fans kept singing Wednesday, and hardly anybody filed out until late in the second half.
But as long as Messi is watching pitchside rather than playing, they face an uphill climb from 14th place to ninth and into the postseason.