Lionel Messi misses third straight game as Inter Miami playoff hopes take hit | Lionel Messi

Here’s how it goes for Inter Miami right now when it comes to the injured Lionel Messi: The team keeps saying he might play, and then he doesn’t play.

That pattern held true again Saturday, when the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was scratched from the lineup for a matchup against New York City FC – a game with significant Major League Soccer playoff implications for both clubs. Messi has a leg injury, the severity of which has not been revealed by Inter Miami.

The team announced that Messi would not play about 45 minutes before Saturday’s game time. Without Messi, Miami still had some magic – Tomás Avilés scored off a header in stoppage time to salvage what became a 1-1 tie. NYCFC had the lead on a goal by Santiago Rodriguez in the 77th minute.

The 36-year-old Messi has now missed four of Inter Miami’s last five matches, plus another for Argentina in that span because of what was first called fatigue – by both his club and country – and has evolved from there. The only game he didn’t miss during that stretch was a 37-minute appearance against Toronto on 20 September, and he had to leave that match before half-time because of what is believed to be a hamstring issue.

“He’s doing better and better,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino said after Saturday’s match.

Inter Miami still have playoff hope, but it took a hit Saturday and the team no longer is in control of its postseason destiny whether Messi returns or not. It is four points behind Montreal for the ninth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference; Inter Miami has four matches left, Montreal has three. NYCFC moved up to No 8 in the East with the tie, climbing one spot.

And Messi’s status the rest of the way remains a mystery, even as some fans pay hundreds of dollars – or more – to attend a match with hopes of seeing him play. Martino said the plan is for Messi to be on the training pitch in the coming days, with more evaluation coming Tuesday. The team next plays Wednesday at Chicago.

“We are not going to take any risks,” Martino said.

Many fans on social media have responded to posts from the team with outrage over the lack of transparency about Messi’s status. A post previewing the NYCFC match, sent around midday Saturday, elicited comments like “Post the squad and don’t fool your own fans. Have some shame.” and “Can y’all be clear about what’s going on with Messi”.

Messi’s status is not the only talking point around the team in recent days. Inter Miami sent out season-ticket renewal notices this week, with big price increases in every section for next season. Season prices in the section where Inter Miami’s most ardent supporters stand, chant and wave banners for the entirety of matches are set to rise 82% (from $485 to $884) in 2024, prices for some seats near midfield will be 98% higher (from $1,333 to $2,635) in some sections than the published price of what they were this year, and other fans were told to expect a more than 100% increase over what they have been paying. The published price for the most expensive season tickets next season tops $40,000, and that isn’t even for the suites.

It surely was expected that prices would rise; Messi’s two-and-a-half-year contract will pay him an average of more than $50m annually, and that doesn’t even take into account what Inter Miami spent to land its other two major midseason acquisitions this year – Jordi Alba (who is also sidelined by injury) and Sergio Busquets.

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But it’s also clear that the team is already enjoying revenue streams like never before. MLS revealed Friday that Messi’s jersey – in absolutely no surprise – is the top-seller in the league this season. MLS, without releasing sale numbers, divulged the 25 most popular jerseys sold at mlsstore.com and Messi’s is No 1, with Busquets at No 13 and Inter Miami’s Josef Martinez at No 21.

That data represents all sales on the site since 1 January, and Messi and Busquets weren’t even with Inter Miami until July. It also does not include anything that the team has sold on its own.

Messi has 11 goals in 12 matches with Inter Miami this season. The team is 8-0-4 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 – the irony of that run being that it prompted concerns over how much Messi was being asked to play in a relatively short span after joining his new club. He has appeared in four MLS matches and one US Open Cup semi-final.

The team is now 1-2-2 in its five matches without Messi since he joined the club. Since his signing, Inter Miami have outscored opponents 29-12 when Messi is on the field, 13-11 when he is not.