Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino will be without Lionel Messi for Sunday’s Florida derby at Orlando. (CHANDAN KHANNA)
Inter Miami head into Sunday’s Florida derby against Orlando City with their Major League Soccer playoff destiny in their own hands but without star performer Lionel Messi.
Messi and his former Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba both limped out of the first half of Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Toronto and were immediately ruled out of the Orlando game by coach Tata Martino.
On Friday, Martino confirmed that Messi is coping with some old “scars” while Alba has “muscle fatigue”.
Martino said that while Messi’s problem is not serious, he cannot “play freely” in his current condition.
“It’s bothers him. I don’t know if it hurts. I can’t really explain as it’s more a medical topic,” said the Argentine coach.
Miami already won the Leagues Cup since Messi’s arrival, the club has a US Open Cup final against Houston on Wednesday and will hope to have the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner back for that game.
But without Messi, Finnish winger Robert Taylor made the most of his opportunity, scoring twice in a 4-0 win over Toronto.
The victory, along with other results going Miami’s way, boosted the team’s playoff hopes with six matches remaining in the regular season.
Put simply, if Miami, with games in hand, win all six matches, they will earn a place in the playoffs, regardless of how teams above them perform.
Orlando City still smarts from a 3-1 loss to Miami in the League Cup when coach Oscar Pareja blasted the refereeing, saying the game, Messi’s third with Miami, had been a “circus”.
Orlando, second in the East, are one of four teams in the conference to have secured a playoff berth, along with Columbus, Philadelphia and leaders Cincinnati.
Cincinnati rewarded Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta with a new contract on Friday, tying him to the team until 2026 with an option for a further year.
The 29-year-old has 14 goals and 11 assists this season as the Ohio club is in a strong position to win the Supporters Shield for the best MLS regular-season record.
“He’s capable of things that others aren’t,” said head coach Pat Noonan.
“When you find players like that and you’re able to keep them on your team, it’s positioning us to hopefully continue these successes as we move forward.”
Cincinnati will host Charlotte on Saturday with the North Carolina team needing to turn promising performances into wins to make the post-season.
MLS newcomer St. Louis City have already exceeded expectations by securing a playoff spot in their maiden season but are in no mood to rest on their laurels.
– MLS Cup final rematch –
In the West, St. Louis head to Minnesota United on Saturday, five points clear at the top of the conference and staying on top will bring significant rewards.
MLS’s playoff system this year features ‘best of three’ games in the first round with top four teams guaranteed home field advantage.
A number one spot would also secure home-field advantage in the single game conference semi-finals and the final.
“Now what’s next for us? Can we now get a top-four finish? Once we get that box checked, then can we win the Western Conference? So it’s all things in baby steps and stages,” said St. Louis’ South African coach Bradley Carnell.
Saturday also sees a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final when the Philadelphia Union host champions Los Angeles FC.
LAFC, third in the West, also beat the Union in the semi-finals of this year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
“It’s always a really tough game. They have great players, they’re very well coached and organized.” said Philly coach Jim Curtin.
“The history between us is a real one, and I think we respect each other a great deal, but neither team gives an inch when we get together.”