Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller (31) reacts after Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) scores during the first half of an MLS soccer match on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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ATLANTA — Atlanta United took the lead with a three-goal spree late in the first half and beat Inter Miami, playing without star Lionel Messi, 5-2 on Saturday night. It was the team’s first loss since Messi’s signing.

Leo Campana scored two goals for Inter Miami, which also was without defender Jordi Alba.

The story of the night, however, was the absence of Messi.

Messi has said he wants to win the MLS championship, but the loss denied Miami a chance to move up from 14th in the East.

The missing Messi came with some discussion about artificial turf, a surface viewed by some players as more taxing on their bodies than grass.

Atlanta is among five MLS stadiums with artificial turf surfaces. Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said the decision to hold out Messi was “because he has muscular fatigue and it was prudent to leave him.”

Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank said he believes the FieldTurf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was not the reason Messi remained in Miami.

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Blank referred to Messi’s statement after signing with Inter Miami that he wouldn’t avoid playing on an artificial surface.

“I think he made that decision,” Blank said. “I don’t really have an opinion on that. I’d just repeat what he said in his press conference, that he has competed on artificial turf since he was a youngster and to some extent as a professional. I don’t think it had anything to do with his decision. I think he suffered some sort of injury, however minor it might be.”

Atlanta United coach Gonzalo Pineda said he learned about Messi’s decision on social media.

“I checked the Twitter account to know he was not coming,” Pineda said, adding he encouraged his players to remain focused despite the attention given Messi’s status.

“Honestly, I told the players, there are a lot of things out there in the atmosphere and everything seems to be about Inter Miami. We have to turn that to about us.”

Messi’s absence for the Major League Soccer match was a disappointment for a crowd of 71,635, many of whom wore pink Inter Miami shirts with the start’s name on the back.

Flozel Marriott, a native of Jamaica and Atlanta resident who previously lived in Miami, attended the game with his wife, daughters and nephew. All wore Messi jerseys, though he said he otherwise supports Atlanta United.

“I was an Argentina fan growing up and I’ve always been a fan of Messi,” Marriott said. “I’m an Atlanta fan as well, but today I’m here supporting Messi. I want my children to see a legend.”

What fans got was a strong Atlanta effort, where the team’s five goals matched the second-highest total of the season.

Brooks Lennon, who also had an assist, scored on the 41st minute to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead. Atlanta took a 4-2 advantage when Giorgos Giakoumakis scored on assists from Thiago Almada and Saba Lobzhanidze in the 76th minute. It was the Atlanta United-record 15th assist of the season for Almada.

Miami has matches at home against Toronto on Wednesday and at Orlando on Sept. 24.

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“This is something that we knew would happen at some point,” Martino said, adding Messi needed time “to get used to our needs.”

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