Miami: After the high-octane excitement of their successful Leagues Cup campaign and the thrill of their comeback victory in the US Open Cup semi-final, Inter Miami and Lionel Messi get down to the main job at hand on Saturday.
The Major League Soccer regular season returns in full with Miami, who travel to the New York Red Bulls, faced with the tough task of climbing from bottom place in the Eastern Conference and into the playoff positions.
Prior to the break for Leagues Cup — and Messi’s arrival along with Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — Miami were winless in 11 games in MLS with the worst record in the entire league.
New-look team on a roll
In most leagues in the world, a team in that position would be focused purely on avoiding relegation from the top flight.
But MLS has no relegation and instead has a playoff system, which could yet offer a way for the new-look Miami, under Argentine coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, to compete for the title — MLS Cup.
The top nine finishers in each conference earn a spot in the playoffs with the top seven going into the first round, best of three series of games.
The eighth and ninth placed teams play each other in a single elimination ‘wild card’ match to get into the first round.
Miami are currently 14 points behind ninth place with 12 games left and so have little room for error in the remainder of the season.
Playoff push on target
But the form they have shown since the arrival of Messi and his two former Barcelona teammates, unbeaten in eight games, albeit winning three of their knockout ties via penalties, suggests such a playoff push is not out of the question.
It will be a long slog to turn Inter’s MLS season around and adding to the difficulty of the task, Martino admitted after Wednesday’s shoot-out win over Cincinnati in the US Open Cup, that his star man was among those feeling the pace of their recent exertions.
“Both Leo and many other players are reaching an important physical limit and from today we will evaluate how we approach the next three matches,” he said.
“The fatigue is overcome with all the enthusiasm … I hope the team in the future could play better, but it’s very difficult to do that when you almost can’t rest,” he added.
Dream first season
It would not be a shock then, for one or more of Messi, Busquets and Alba, to start on the bench at Red Bull Arena on Saturday with Martino retaining the option to throw them on in the second half.
The Red Bulls are in 11th place in the East, 11 points ahead of Miami, and have their own hopes of clambering into the postseason.
Saturday’s games see Eastern Conference leaders Cincinnati host 2021 champions New York City, while in the West, top-placed St. Louis City, enjoying a dream first season in the league, are at Orlando City.
Defending champions Los Angeles FC travel to North Carolina to face Charlotte FC.