Lionel Messi's status remains unclear for Inter Miami's U.S. Open Cup final match against Houston on Wednesday night.
The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner was subbed out of a match against Toronto on Sept. 20 in the first half because of a leg issue, and did not play in the team's 1-1 tie at Orlando on Sunday. That was the third match he missed in its entirety — two for club, one for country — in the last two weeks.
Messi was not on the field for the portion of a training session that was available to reporters on Tuesday. Speaking at a post-practice news conference at the team's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said no decision on Messi's status will be made before Wednesday.
“It's a handicap when you don't have the best player in the world,” Inter Miami midfielder Sergio Busquets said.
The nature of Messi's leg problem remains unclear. Fatigue was originally cited for Messi's absences, and Martino eventually said last week that the problem stems from scar tissue from a previous injury. Messi was seen stretching at times during the Sept. 20 match, as if to indicate he was having some sort of muscular issue.
Jordi Alba, another midseason acquisition by Inter Miami, is expected to miss the Cup final because of injury, Martino said. He left the Sept. 20 match against Toronto about three minutes before Messi was subbed out.
The 36-year-old Messi missed Argentina’s World Cup qualifying win at Bolivia on Sept. 12, and Inter Miami’s 5-2 loss at Atlanta United on Sept. 16. He returned for the Sept. 20 match, but didn't even make it to halftime.
Inter Miami is still very much alive in the race to make Major League Soccer's playoffs and has three matches looming in the coming days. The team plays host to New York City FC on Saturday, at Chicago on Oct. 4 and returns home to face Cincinnati on Oct. 7.
Martino indicated that any decision on Messi's availability for those upcoming MLS matches will be made after Wednesday.
The team has lost only once in 15 matches since Messi first appeared for the club, winning nine and tying five. Three of those ties came in tournament play, with Inter Miami winning on penalty kicks all three times — two in the Leagues Cup, including the final against Nashville for the Miami club’s first-ever trophy, and another in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
Messi — who will make somewhere between $125 million and $150 million in salary for Inter Miami over the life of his 2-1/2 year contract — has appeared in 12 matches for Miami, most of them in Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup competition. He has 11 goals and eight assists, and one goal and two assists in four MLS matches.
But there is concern that the workload from playing so often is catching up with Messi.
“We’re not machines, we’re not robots,” Busquets said. “We’d love to play all the matches and not be tired and not have injuries. But it’s something we can’t control.”
Tickets on the secondary market for Wednesday’s match, (sales were promoted by the team Tuesday morning, even with Messi’s status unclear), were ranging from about $170 to more than $5,000 apiece.
The Leagues Cup trophy was the 44th major championship that Messi has been part of for club and country in his career, which is believed to be the most in world history.
Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press