Inter Miami loses first game of season when Lionel Messi plays

Lionel Messi scored yet again, but it was the lone highlight for Inter Miami CF, as its 10-match Major League Soccer unbeaten run was ended by an Atlanta United side that got its first league win in nearly two months.

Saba Lobjanidze scored once in each half, Jamal Thiare helped put the game away with a goal in the 73rd minute and Atlanta United snapped a nine-match MLS winless streak with a 3-1 victory on Wednesday night.

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Atlanta was 0-5-4 in MLS play since beating Chicago 3-0 on March 31. But it never trailed on Wednesday, with Lobjanidze scoring late in the first half to put his side on top and adding the second in the 59th minute. After Messi’s goal, Atlanta kept all 10 field players in the defensive end whenever the hosts had deep possession in the final 30 minutes.

“The first sensation is that Atlanta United played with more urgency, and that we needed more,” said Miami manager Gerardo Martino after the match. “That showed throughout the first half. But it’s not a game where I need to do an analysis of what went wrong, because what happened was a bit of everything. It was a night where the team receded, whereas in other games we find positive moments in the challenges. Like last game in the second half where we had to defend, but this time we couldn’t connect.

“The conditions were favorable, much more for us than them. But as we talked yesterday, their position on the table is deceiving and they showed that today.”

Messi got his 11th goal of the MLS season, tying Luis Suárez for the team lead. Inter Miami (10-3-4, 34 points) kept a one-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and the overall MLS standings over Cincinnati (10-3-3, 33 points). Cincinnati lost to Nashville on Wednesday night, missing a chance to take the top spot.

Inter Miami entered Wednesday with a 7-0-3 mark in its last 10 MLS matches. It is now 10-0-4 when allowing two goals or less in MLS play this season — and 0-3-0 when surrendering three goals or more.

So, Wednesday was a dud. The first half of the season, though, has gone largely to plan.

With 34 points through exactly half the MLS schedule — matching its total from all of the 2023 season, when Messi joined around the midway point and helped the team win Leagues Cup but couldn’t get it into the playoffs — Inter Miami is on pace for 68 points this season.

Mathematically correct yes, realistically maybe not so much.

The plan, for now, calls for Messi to get at least some minutes when Miami plays host to St. Louis on Saturday. After that, Messi will be trading Inter Miami’s pink kit for the blue of Argentina — playing for country instead of club for a bit.

Copa América — the 16-team tournament which runs from June 20 through July 14 — is looming, with Messi set to play for defending champion Argentina and Suarez a possibility to play for Uruguay.

Asked if he thought Messi was saving himself for the Copa América, Martino, who coached Atlanta to the MLS Cup title in 2018, said: “No, I will not speculate if Messi is saving himself for Copa America because [that question has] no validity.”

The former Barcelona teammates may miss MLS matches when Miami plays at Philadelphia (June 15), Columbus (June 19), at Nashville (June 29), at Charlotte (July 3) and at Cincinnati (July 6). Following the Copa América final, Miami also has home matches against Toronto (July 17) and Chicago (July 20).

Unlike most leagues, MLS schedules games during some FIFA fixture periods, when release of players to national teams is mandatory. And after Copa, it would seem likely that Miami may lose some players again when national teams call for the Paris Olympics.

Messi had some opportunities in the early going, including a diving header about four minutes into the match off a chip into the middle of the box by Jordi Alba. Messi, fending off some contact, sent the ball into the turf and the carom spun over the crossbar; he gave Alba a thumbs-up for the idea as he picked himself up from the grass with a smile.

“For me, it was a game where we had to find alternatives to attack and so we couldn’t justify bringing in midfielders or midfielders with defensive characteristics like Benjamin Cremaschi,” Martino said. “We are a team that needs the ball to attack and win. We can recede with two lines of four, but when we break into more offensive options with five at the front we give the rival more of a chance to win than ourselves.”

And in the 21st minute, Messi sent a chip toward the left post — just over a leaping Robert Taylor, who would have had plenty of net to aim for had he been able to attempt the header.

His goal in the 63rd minute was a typical Messi masterpiece, threading a ball between two defenders and just inside the right post, barely out of the reach of a diving Atlanta goalie Josh Cohen.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.