National Writer: Charles Boehm

Inter Miami magic slows at Atlanta United: Messi absence or something more?


As incredible as it was, the streak had to end at some point.

The increasingly euphoric unbeaten run Inter Miami CF embarked on with the mid-July arrival of Lionel Messi came shuddering to a halt 12 matches in Saturday afternoon. The Herons were comprehensively defeated 5-2 by a rampant Atlanta United side, inflicting a suboptimal homecoming on former Five Stripes icons Gerardo “Tata” Martino and Josef Martínez in front of a 71,635 crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Messi and his teammate Jordi Alba were left off the gameday roster, with Martino citing “muscular fatigue” and a resultingly elevated risk of injury to his two stars. It was a decision he chalked up to the inevitable realities of Miami’s congested stretch-run schedule, not to mention the thousands of air miles Messi racked up on his journey to South America to play for Argentina during the September international window.

It was not, Martino maintained, the primary reason for his side’s stinging defeat.

As they have in all but three games of their unbeaten run, IMCF scored first. Leo Campana flashed superb skill and composure in the 25th minute to corral the rebound and finish past Brad Guzan after Dixon Arroyo’s long-range blast had clanged off the woodwork. But Tristan Muyumba's equalizing header 11 minutes later incited a disastrous loss of composure among the visitors, who conceded twice more in an eight-minute span that dug them a hole too deep to recover from.

“Having [Messi and Alba] is an important and considerable advantage for the team in the same way as not having them. There is no doubt about that,” said Martino. “I don't think either of the two absences had to do with it. Those eight minutes had errors. At the start we had bad recoveries in the transitions; we do not have to look for what happened in those eight minutes on the absences [of Messi and Alba] but rather because of the team's deficiencies.”

Falling short

The fact that Muyumba’s goal had a whiff of controversy made all that even more frustrating. The ball caromed off the far post and was ruled by the on-field refereeing crew to have barely crossed the line before Drake Callender arrived to paw it away, with Video Review finding insufficient evidence to overturn the decision.

“I have my doubts about the equalizing goal, as to whether it went in or not,” Martino said. “They said there was no image that showed the ball didn’t go in, but I don’t think there is any image that shows that it did go in. But it was 1-1, and then we got a bit disorganized.”

As desperate as Miami are to make a late dash into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, the odds of which took a hit from Saturday’s loss, they also host Houston Dynamo FC in the US Open Cup final on Sept. 27 – providing a chance for a second title after winning Leagues Cup in mid-August. And though his heroics often make him seem like an extraterrestrial, their Argentine talisman is still only human.

Messi was subbed out of La Albiceleste’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Ecuador on Sept. 7 – a crucial result delivered by one of his trademark free-kick golazos – after he “felt something,” in the words of Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, seemingly in a leg muscle, that led Scaloni to sit him out of their subsequent 3-0 win over Bolivia in La Paz.

“There is some risk of having worse consequences if they came to play this match,” said Martino of Messi and Alba, before batting aside the suggestion that the choice to rest them was influenced by MBS’s artificial turf playing surface.

“The field has nothing to do with it at all. This is the day-to-day life that we have ahead of us, because we have the quest to try to reach the playoffs. But we have the [Open Cup Final] on the 27th, so sometimes there are difficult decisions, because these are also decisive matches. But the reality is that there is a final set for the 27th. That’s just one game, for a title. The league is seven, eight more dates, and [even] if we win them all, it is not certain we get in. We started this run way behind. We won’t abandon our hopes, but our focus is on the 27th.”

Atlanta get revenge

Atlanta’s victory provided a reminder of the defensive frailties that doomed Miami repeatedly in their painful descent to the foot of the MLS standings in the months before their summer signings rode to the rescue.

The Five Stripes, however, were highly deserving in their own right, and keen on revenge, particularly for the 4-0 trouncing they suffered at DRV PNK Stadium during Leagues Cup, where Messi scored 2g/1a in his first IMCF start.

“It got a little chippy because we weren't happy with the results that we've had the past few times we've played them,” ATL defender Brooks Lennon, who notched a goal and an assist, told MLS Season Pass sideline reporter Katie Witham.

“They knocked us out of Leagues Cup. And so we had a bit of hunger tonight, and we wanted to come back and prove to our fans and the league that we’re no pushovers.”

Even with that extra bit of spite on the pitch, Martino and Martinez were welcomed warmly by the fans who still cherish their role in winning MLS Cup 2018 and building ATLUTD into an MLS giant.

“Like always, it's the best to come back here,” said Martino. “The city and the club are places we had two great years and felt really respected and loved. Obviously I'm sad because we lost and we came to compete and win if it was possible, but coming back is always special regardless.”