Lionel Messi’s first season in Major League Soccer will end without a trip to the playoffs following Inter Miami’s 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati on Saturday night.
Messi entered in the 55th minute and went scoreless for the fourth straight league game since getting a goal in the 89th minute of his MLS debut. The defeat eliminated Miami from contention with two games remaining. He had missed five of the team’s six previous games in all competitions because of a leg injury.
Anticipating a second-half appearance, fans at DRV PNK Stadium screamed his name when Messi and teammates began warmups along the sidelines. The screams intensified as Messi approached the midfield area and entered the match in the 55th minute.
He made an immediate impact, drawing a foul and free kick in the 59th minute. But his shot from 25 yards sailed high and wide.
“As far as the injury is concerned, he is fine. There are no problems,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said in Spanish. “Obviously, because he has not played recently, there was a lack of rhythm. That is why he played (35) minutes.”
Cincinnati, in first place in the Eastern Conference, won the game on Álvaro Barreal’s goal in the 78th minute. Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender stopped Yuya Kubo’s shot and Barreal retrieved the deflection and converted with his left foot from 8 yards.
Messi had another free kick during stoppage time but his equalizing attempt sailed wide left.
The loss kept Miami (9-17-6) at 33 points with two matches remaining while eighth place Montreal solidified its chances with its 4-1 win over Portland.
“Honestly, I anticipated the exact difference from what occurred,” said Martino, who took over as Miami coach June 28. “My expectations were to build the club and qualify for the playoffs.”
Miami went 1-2-2 with Messi out of the lineup. Messi likely played his last MLS match of the season after Miami’s elimination. He also has pending World Cup qualifying commitments with Argentina.
Messi scored 12 goals in the combined 13 league and cup matches he played since joining Miami on a 2 1/2-year deal in July. Miami was 8-0-4 with Messi before Saturday’s loss.
Cincinnati (20-5-8, 68 points) has already clinched the top berth in the East and a first-round bye. The win also avenged a home loss against Miami in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal Aug. 23.
“We had this circled after the Open Cup,” Cincinnati defender Nick Hagglund told Apple TV. “It was a tough loss at home. We wanted to come to their place and give them a taste of their own little medicine.”
Miami pressured throughout the first half with but could not beat goalkeeper Roman Celentano.
Tomás Avilés hit the crossbar in the ninth minute. Josef Martinez hit the goalpost in the 24th minute and Benjamin Cremaschi glanced a shot off the cross bar in the 24th. Celentano also dove and deflected Facundo Farias’ 20-yard shot in the 30th minute.
“We needed to make a difference in the first half,” Martino said. “Our football was at its best in the first half. We just could not get the needed goal.”
Messi will join Argentina for 2026 World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Peru on Oct. 12 and 17 respectively. With Miami’s season ending soon, Argentina must figure out how to maintain Messi’s fitness for World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay on Nov. 16 and at Brazil five days later.
Miami’s remaining league matches will be a home and road set against Charlotte Oct. 18 and 21.