The most pressing question entering the Inter Miami home game against Toronto FC on Wednesday is whether Lionel Messi will return to the lineup after not traveling to the road match at Atlanta last Saturday.
Coach Tata Martino, who said Messi and Jordi Alba were left home from Atlanta due to “muscular fatigue,” confirmed that both players were training the full session on Tuesday but would not predict whether they will play against Toronto. “After [training] we will see if they’re available to play and to what extent,” he said.
Teammates DeAndre Yedlin and Dixon Arroyo said Messi and Alba looked good in training the past few days. Arroyo said Messi looked “100 percent, hopefully he can play Wednesday” and Yedlin added: “Ultimately only they know how they feel, but from what I can see [Messi] looks good, happy, ready to go.”
Martino stressed that he has tough decisions to make during a particularly busy stretch of the schedule with six games during the next 18 days, including the U.S. Open Cup final against Houston Dynamo on Sept. 27.
“Every player on our roster wants to play every match, that is the mentality of this group,” he said. “We have a lot of important matches in a short window of time, and one of my responsibilities as the coach is to care for my players and help them make the hard decisions that will give us the best chance of keeping everyone healthy during this busy run.”
Messi, the 36-year-old Argentine star, had played 12 games during a 48-day stretch since joining Inter Miami, and traveled to Argentina and Bolivia with his national team the first week of September. He has not played for Inter Miami since Sept. 3.
Miami lost 5-2 to Atlanta, the team’s first loss in 13 games, and the absence of Messi and Alba was felt.
“Obviously, with Leo, you’re talking about the best player ever to play the game, so from the opponent’s standpoint, that strikes a bit of fear in them,” Yedlin said. “Jordi is arguably one of the best to ever play left back. Experience is a lot, especially in this league, when things can get hectic, as you saw in that Atlanta game. We needed someone to help slow the game down a bit. They’re obviously huge misses. We were missing organization and a little bit of discipline.”
Martino suggested after the game Saturday that the U.S. Open Cup final is a top priority, but the team will continue to try to claw up the standings to a playoff spot.
When Martino took over and the roster was overhauled in July, Inter Miami was in last place in the MLS standings and 12 points short of the playoff line with 12 league games to go. The team then went on a 12-game unbeaten streak, but most of those were cup tournament games. Since the MLS season resumed, Miami won three games, lost one and tied one and closed the gap to seven points from the playoffs with seven games to go.
“We’re going to try to win every game possible; whether people think that’s realistic or not,” Yedlin said. “For us, we believe we can win every game we have the rest of the season… We’ve gone 13 games with one loss and one draw, and you see how Atlanta reacted to beating us. That’s a big difference to how they would have reacted before. We know we’re going to get every team’s best game.”
Toronto is in last place in the East at 4-14-10 and coming off a 2-1 loss to Vancouver, but they beat Philadelphia 3-1 the previous game and have standout players such as Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Michael Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio.
“There was this huge outside pressure to not lose a game for the rest of the season. That monkey’s off our back now, so we can be free a little bit,” Yedlin said. “We got humbled a bit and now we can move forward.”
Inter Miami has four games over the next 11 days. Following the Toronto game Miami plays at Orlando City on Sunday, at home in the U.S. Open Cup final Sept. 27 and home against New York City FC on Sept. 30.