Messi goal can’t save inconsistent Inter Miami vs. Atlanta

MIAMI, Fl. — Atlanta United drove the home fans to the exits by the 75th minute at Chase Stadium as it triumphed 3-1 over an underwhelming Inter Miami side led by Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.

The Miami supporters, who usually stay through the final whistle, cleared out early as the Herons struggled to generate anything offensively once again. Even with stars Messi, Suárez and Sergio Busquets returning to the starting XI, the team only recorded seven shots in the second half and averaged just 0.64 in Expected Goals (xG) over the 90 minutes, with Suárez (0.26) and Messi (0.18) failing to hit top gear.

The South Florida team, who scored 19 goals in five MLS games from April 14 to May 12 to propel it to the top of the table, looked lifeless. And though one loss against an Eastern Conference rival may not affect Miami in the long run, questions have rightly been raised about whether its lack of consistency will haunt the side when the playoffs roll around?

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Atlanta came into the match on a 10-game winless streak and sat 12th in the Eastern Conference table. The Herons, with its star trio back and a deep bench containing Matías Rojas, Benjamin Cremaschi and Leonardo Campana, was tipped as huge favorite. Yet two goals from Saba Lobjanidze and one from Jamal Thiare, after Messi had struck a reply, sent Miami to their third loss of the 2024 MLS season — and the first with Messi on the roster.

“The conditions were favorable, much more for us than them,” Miami coach Gerardo Martino said afterward. “It was a game of football where we had a better situation in the lead-up to the game due to the momentum we were living and our position in the table.”

Indeed, the defeat marked the first time since Barcelona‘s 2-1 loss against Celta Vigo on May 16, 2021 that Messi has lost a match when getting on the scoresheet at club level.

But Miami has struggled offensively of late, with four goals from its last five games. Just days ago, it labored to a 1-0 win over D.C. United as the opponent’s five-man backline muted Suárez and Messi in the final third all too easily, and it took a 94th-minute winner from Campana to seal the victory.

Consistency has also been an issue, which is encapsulated by the fact that Miami triumphed 3-1 over the same D.C. United at Audi Field on March 16, as goals from Campana and Suárez reflected a strong and well-connected offense. In that game, Miami recorded 17 shots and boasted 51% possession in a dominant performance.

Miami’s two matches against Orlando City in 2024 have shown a similar pattern. The Herons recorded a 5-0 win on March 2, as Suárez and Messi celebrated two goals each, but two months later they couldn’t break the deadlock in a poor 0-0 draw.

Despite such inconsistent results, Miami leads the Eastern Conference table and Supporters’ Shield standings with 34 points in 17 games — the same amount it had in whole of the the 2023 campaign — and look likely to clinch a playoff slot.

However, the playoff format of a best-of-three series in round 1 will force Miami to outperform an opponent more than once across the span of a week. And, historically, the Herons struggle with load management. The team has managed to win just one of their six midweek matches this season, falling twice to Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions Cup when playing between weekend MLS matches, and now against Atlanta United too.

“We have to keep adding points and near the amount needed to statistically qualify for the playoffs,” Martino said. “After that, we need to maintain our level. MLS has two tournaments, the regular season for adding points and then the playoffs. You could have a great season, be in first place, and then in the first round of playoffs with one game you’re out. It’s deceiving.”

In order to win an MLS Cup, teams must be prepared to perform throughout the 10-month regular season and maintain momentum when heading into the four-week playoff tournament. A record-breaking regular season may mean nothing in the end, as evidenced by St. Louis City in 2023 after finishing first in the Western Conference table before crashing out in the first round of the playoffs.

Should Messi and Miami want to make history, they will have to show more versatility and consistency. At the moment, anything could happen.