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Without Lionel Messi, Inter Miami Loses 2-1 to Houston in US Open Cup Final

September 28, 2023

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Messi couldn’t play, and the Houston Dynamo took full advantage to win a trophy on his home field.

Griffin Dorsey and Amine Bassi scored first-half goals and Houston — with NBA star James Harden, part of the team’s ownership group, looking on from the stands — topped Messi-less Inter Miami 2-1 on Wednesday night to win the U.S. Open Cup.

Josef Martinez scored in second-half stoppage time for Inter Miami, but it wasn’t enough as Messi could only look on from the team bench area.

Messi was not on Inter Miami’s active roster for the match because of a leg issue, marking his fourth absence in a span of his last five games combined for club and country. And it’s unclear if Messi will continue to be sidelined when Inter Miami resumes its push to make Major League Soccer’s playoffs this weekend.

Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said Wednesday night that “it wasn’t prudent” to consider playing Messi against Houston, though he indicated the team expects him to play on Saturday when MLS contests resume for the club. Messi will continue to be evaluated until then.

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 draw 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, and missing a final on Wednesday suggests the problem could be worse than the team has suggested.

Also out for Wednesday: Jordi Alba, another of Inter Miami’s celebrated midseason acquisitions. Alba has a leg injury and his status for upcoming matches is unknown.

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, then sat out Sunday.

There were downpours in the Fort Lauderdale area late Wednesday afternoon, yet thousands of fans — many of them wearing Messi jerseys either in the blue and white of Argentina or the pink of Inter Miami — showed up long before the gates opened for the Cup final, if for no other reason than to watch the team buses arrive.

They might have seen the buses. They didn’t see Messi on the field, and it might have led to some expensive disappointment for some fans. Ticket prices on the secondary markets, with links to sales posted on the team’s social media channels as recently as Tuesday, ranged from $145 to nearly $4,000 about an hour before the match.

That was down slightly from Tuesday, but still was a clear sign that people were spending big money with hopes of seeing Messi lift another trophy — and on his new home field for the first time. Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup this summer, that title-match win coming on the road in Nashville.

Houston won the U.S. Open Cup for the second time, after also taking the title in 2018. The tournament dates back to 1913 and pits domestic teams — some even from the semi-pro level — from all sorts of U.S. leagues against one another. This year’s field was 99 teams.

Inter Miami is still very much alive in the race to make MLS’ 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. It trails NYCFC by five points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Wednesday, with two matches in hand — but that still makes Saturday’s game very important in the standings.

Messi — who will make somewhere between $125 million and $150 million 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.

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