Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba won't play a part in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday night. Neither player was seen getting off the team bus to enter DRV PNK Stadium and they also aren't part of the matchday 18-man squad to take on the Houston Dynamo. After being withdrawn in the first half of Miami's match versus Toronto FC on Sept. 20, the duo missed their next match versus Orlando City SC before Tata Martino said that Messi would be a game-time decision for the final.
Without Messi being available, that puts the keys to the team into the hands of Facundo Farias. Martino will get a slight boost as Diego Gomez returns to the squad for the first time since picking up an injury during the international break with Paraguay.
Here's what to know:
Messi isn't in the matchday squad
Considering that he hasn't completed more than 60 minutes in a game since facing Ecuador on Sept. 8, making the starting XI for this match would have been a stretch as he looks to recover from his fatigue and hamstring issues from a preexisting injury. It makes sense as to why he won't play but this is quite a blow for the Herons.
Tata Martino comments on Messi's status
Speaking ahead of Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final, the Miami manager said that Messi is, in effect, a game-time decision. "We are going to wait on Leo until the last moment." Jordi Alba looks less likely to be able to play, however.
🏃♂️ Lionel Messi Entreno!— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) September 26, 2023
Tata Martino says Messi did train today, coming out onto field after media left, and Inter Miami will wait until tomorrow to make a decision on his availability.
Martino adds that Jordi Alba is less likely to play than Messi.#InterMiamiCF #Messi𓃵 pic.twitter.com/k91FMGakcq
Martino went on to say that if Wednesday's match was not a cup final they would not take the risk with Messi, but that since it is, they can consider letting him give it a go, depending on how he is doing in the leadup to the match. If Messi can't feature, all eyes will be on 21-year-old Facundo Farias. The Argentine attacking midfielder has registered three goals and one assist during his time with the Herons and is a player who can help fill the creative void without Messi.
For not having Alba, things are a little different. Noah Allen is a left back with plenty of experience but he forces the Herons to attack differently than Alba who takes up spaces more akin to a winger, which could give Houston space to play into.
Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba absent from Tuesday's open practice
On the morning before the U.S. Open Cup final, notable faces were absent from the open portion of Inter Miami's training as Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba were nowhere to be seen.
While manager Tata Martino has been downplaying their injuries saying that the duo have been out with fatigue, even he ended up admitting that Messi's injury in particular could be something a little more serious. Prior to facing Orlando City SC, Martino made mention that Messi has scarring that was reaggravated from a previous injury but then followed up claiming that it wasn't serious. Adding that to Messi's absence raises cause for concern for the Herons as they look to win their second trophy of the season, but there is hope for the squad. Unlike Leagues Cup, the path to the Open Cup final is one that most of the squad did the heavy lifting in prior to Messi's arrival, so even if they don't have him or Alba, there are plenty of reasons why the Herons can still go toe to toe with the Houston Dynamo.
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Messi misses Orlando Match
On Friday, Martino reiterated that Messi and Alba won't be available for a short away trip to Orlando but there was also a new name missing from open practice, Sergio Busquets. Busquets has been a constant in midfield since joining the Herons so while one would think that his absence was a precautionary one, Martino may not want to take any risks counting down the days until a cup final. He did get some work in on the stationary bike along with Kamal Miller and Tomas Aviles
Jean Mota did return to training which is a help to the midfield but when he has been out of action since April with an LCL injury, expecting him to play much of a role over the next few days would be unrealistic. Diego Gomez is also still sidelined after picking up a muscular injury with Paraguay which is why Martino has to be so careful with his midfielders.
"It's bothersome. I don't know if it hurts. I can't really explain as it's more a medical topic," Martino said about Messi's scar after practice on Friday. "It's probable it bothers him to the point, including mentally, that he isn't able to play freely."
What happened against Toronto?
Before halftime against Toronto FC Wednesday, Inter Miami's Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba were withdrawn in a strange turn of events after manager Tata Martino stated that they were battling fatigue heading into the match. Alba was replaced by Noah Allen in the 35th minute and then Messi was substituted by Robert Taylor in the 37th minute in what seemed like a planned switch in a 4-0 win. It turns out it wasn't. Neither player went to the locker room for treatment and appeared fine on the bench but Martino said afterward that Messi is dealing with fatigue while saying he has an "injury scar."
"They trained normally and we felt like they were ready to play," Martino said following the match, according to The Athletic. "I don't believe it's anything new or anything worse than what they have. It's fatigue. I don't think it's a muscular injury."
"He had an old injury that had been bothering him," Martino added, per the AP. "In this case, that he had with the national team."
Already ruling the duo out of Miami's rivalry match Sunday against Orlando City SC, it appears that he is protecting Messi and Alba while prioritizing the U.S. Open Cup final on Sept. 27, which will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network and Paramount+. It's the biggest match in club history when they meet the Houston Dynamo, allowing them to win a trophy even more coveted than the Leagues Cup, which they claimed this summer soon after Messi's arrival.
Though Martino appeared far from concerned, he wasn't committing to them appearing in the final, though it's difficult to see how they don't play if they are remotely fit.
"I know we have a final to play but they won't go near the pitch if they can't play," Martino said, giving Messi and Alba even more rest. Messi did not play in Saturday's loss at Atlanta United, not even traveling with the team.
Prior to the match, he mentioned the need to protect his stars, but then he decided to play them against the bottom team in the Eastern Conference. With the Herons looking sluggish out of the gate, they managed to score plenty in a 4-0 win, pulling them even closer to ninth place in the Eastern Conference and a playoff spot, thanks to a brace from Taylor.
Why are the duo fatigued?
After not having a true offseason due to coming straight from a grueling European season into Leagues Cup play, Miami had to thrust its stars right into the lineup. They responded by leading the Herons to their first trophy in club history but played games every three to four days while also traveling across the country. MLS domestically has travel demands like no other league due to the size of the United States, and during Leagues Cup, Miami couldn't even plan for who their opposition would be since it was determined based on who won their matches.
Martino didn't have a choice but to play them as much as possible in a knockout tournament with so much at stake, but Leagues Cup caused two MLS matches to be rescheduled, only adding more games to Miami's schedule. However, that wasn't the only challenge, as the Open Cup also gave Miami another thing to consider while trying to make up ground in the playoff race.
Messi, of course, dealt with international duty with Argentina this month as well, flying to Buenos Aires and back, missing the second game against Bolivia with this light injury when national team boss Lionel Scaloni said Messi "felt something."
Priorities are key
Under Martino and with Messi, Miami have already won the first trophy in club history, and they are now only one victory away from their second trophy after being one of the worst-performing teams in MLS since joining as an expansion side. Even with rotating and saving Messi for the final, the Herons were still able to gain ground in the playoff race. So, if Martino can be doubted for anything on Wednesday night, it's the fact that he started Messi instead of bringing him off the bench.
If the introductions were done in the opposite direction, with Messi and Alba getting 30 minutes off the bench, questions wouldn't have been asked. One thing that's interesting is that while Messi and Alba are struggling with fatigue, Sergio Busquets has featured in every match that he has been available for, coming off the bench twice and starting 11 times in midfield. It's an impressive tally for the 35-year-old, but at some point, he'll likely need to be rotated too.
Martino now has the unenviable task of navigating the next week, winning two matches and keeping everyone fit. But if any manager can solve this puzzle, it's him, with so much on the line the rest of the way.