Inter Miami keeps playoff hopes alive while testing fan loyalty amid Lionel Messi injury saga

Inter Miami star Lionel Messi watched Saturday’s 1-1 draw with New York City FC from the stands. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images) (Megan Briggs via Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Kamal Miller sat glued to rain-soaked grass as unfulfilled fans scurried off into the South Florida night.

Many had paid handsome sums to see Lionel Messi. When Messi arrived at DRV PNK Stadium sporting a T-shirt and a mysterious injury, they repurposed their cravings. They wanted, at the very least, to witness an Inter Miami victory. On a long, wet Saturday evening, they didn’t — and that’s why Miller, a Miami defender, sank to the turf, digesting a 1-1 draw with New York City FC.

“Just felt like we had really let them down,” Miller later said.

But they, fans and players alike, also fought. They fought through a weather delay and a sudden gloom engulfing the club. They fought through fatigue and frustration, through uncertainty surrounding Messi, back from a 1-0 deficit to earn a point. They nearly stole all three.

So they kept their playoff hopes on life support. Thanks to Tomás Avilés’ 95th-minute header, they are four points back with four games to go.

And perhaps more importantly, after 90 sluggish minutes, their stoppage-time fightback staved off a malaise that had abruptly overtaken Messi Mania. Two months of giddy, incessant excitement began to turn sour this past week. And Inter Miami now faces an uphill battle to salvage more positivity from its wild season.

‘They priced me out’

At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, as Messi hopped out of a black Escalade and hustled through a downpour, Alex Guzman leaned against a table outside Section 117 and vented.

Guzman is something of a South Florida soccer lifer, a patron of professional teams here dating back to the old Fort Lauderdale Strikers. He followed the North American Soccer League until its mid-1980s demise, then celebrated its rebirth this century. He attended the final game at Lockhart Stadium, former home of the now-defunct Strikers. He attended the first game at Inter Miami’s Lockhart replacement, and has hardly missed an Inter home game since.

Which means he sat through three “horrific” seasons, through losses and front-office mayhem. He sat through dreadful games, often with very few fans by his side. Inter Miami ranked last in MLS in attendance in 2022. It ranked last in points, on the field, midway through 2023. “At the beginning of this season,” Guzman says, “I could not give my ticket away — I mean, literally give it away. No takers.” He kept coming, weekend after weekend, pitiful display after pitiful display, because he felt committed to the club.

So he, like all of South Florida, was thrilled when Messi arrived and instantly transformed that club.

But here he was, a little over two months later, using few words describe his relationship with the club: “I’m hurt.”

He wasn’t hurt by Messi’s absence, nor by Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final defeat. He was hurt because Thursday, Inter Miami gave him a price for season-ticket renewal that was more than double what he’d paid in 2023. His current price is $969, he said; his quote for 2024 was $2,018.

“They priced me out,” he said matter-of-factly. So he won’t be returning next season. He cites economics, but also “principle.”

Sergio Busquets of Inter Miami CF waves to the fans after the match against the New York City FC at DRV PNK Stadium on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images) (Megan Briggs via Getty Images)

Guzman was one of many loyal fans who arrived at DRV PNK Stadium on Saturday feeling somewhere between peeved and outraged. They felt that their loyalty wasn’t being reciprocated. “I’m just being treated like any of these people that just walked up, all these Messi fans,” Guzman said.

And all those Messi fans aren’t exactly overjoyed either right now. As rain and swirling winds forced them out of their seats, into the concourse, about 40 minutes before kickoff, a few grumbled about paying hundreds of dollars — plus more for food and parking — only to see Messi sit in a field-side suite.

Many had actually tried to sell their tickets. But just as in Guzman’s pre-Messi memories, there were very few takers. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with Messi’s absence confirmed, SeatGeek and StubHub listed dozens of tickets for less than $20.

Around that same time, thunder and lightning struck nearby. Those who had shown up were told to evacuate the stands. They ultimately sheltered in the concrete concourse for around 40 minutes, with rain spritzing in from the north and east. The game ultimately kicked off after a one-hour delay, with empty seats visible. Around 3/4ths or 4/5ths were occupied by drenched humans, but this, surely, was the sparsest crowd of the Messi era.

And it began to thin out throughout the second half of a dispiriting game. Miami was stagnant and sloppy. NYCFC missed a few glorious chances. Santiago Rodríguez finally converted one in the 77th minute, and the exodus seemed to accelerate. As second-half stoppage time arrived, around 10:30 p.m., the stands were half-empty. Some of the brave souls who stayed dug their chins into their palms, disgruntled.

“Come ooooon,” a young supporter in a Messi jersey moaned.

But a few minutes later, Avilés, a 19-year-old Argentine defender signed shortly after Messi, rose for his first Miami goal. Fireworks spouted. Some 10,000 remaining fans roared. And they kept roaring as Miami pushed for a winner — because they, like the players, knew that draws won’t make up sufficient ground in a messy playoff race.

This draw, however, bought Miami time. It initially felt like two points dropped. That’s what Miller pondered as he sat on the grass alongside teenage left back Noah Allen. But then he recalibrated his mind. He took a few deep breaths. “Push it under the rug,” he told himself, because: “We still have so much to fight for.”

The pressing question, of course, is whether they’ll have Messi fighting alongside them.

Messi’s mysterious injury hangs over Inter Miami

The final piece of growing frustration among Inter fans is the club’s lack of transparency around Messi’s injury. Head coach Tata Martino has publicly ruled out Messi of only one game this month; yet Messi has played just 36 minutes of soccer since Sept. 7.

Fans, journalists and other cynical observers have accused the club of stringing the public along, hiding the true severity of Messi’s injury so as to not dampen hype around the team. Martino has rejected this criticism, while noting that secrecy can come with competitive advantages.

On Saturday, he was also forced to address a dubious report that Messi’s injury was actually a hamstring tear. Martino didn’t outright say the report was false, but he reiterated what he’d said earlier in the week: that the staff is evaluating Messi game by game, and that Messi is feeling better while training separately from the group.

So he could, in theory, play Wednesday in Chicago. He could, more likely, play next Saturday at home against Cincinnati.

Until he does, this cloud of uncertainty will linger.

Players surely see it over their shoulder. They weren’t certain heading into Wednesday’s final whether Messi would or wouldn’t suit up. The only certainty, at this point, is that they are an entirely different team without him.

They were one of the worst teams in MLS before his arrival. They were one of the best from July 21-Sept. 21. Over the past week, they have reverted back to springtime form. Most of the magic and glowing vibes have evaporated. And so too will the playoffs, soon, if Messi stays sidelined.


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