The Houston Dynamo’s convincing defeat of Inter Miami in Wednesday’s US Open Cup Final demonstrated the Florida club’s dependence on Lionel Messi. His muscle injury did more than sideline him to the bench. He was not even in the matchday squad because of the knock he picked up with Argentina. As a result, the Houston Dynamo defeated Miami at DRV PNK Stadium to win its first trophy since 2018.

For Miami, Messi not playing for the team is the difference between Inter Miami winning and losing. In the four games where Messi wasn’t able to play, Inter Miami won just one game (against Sporting Kansas City). The losses against Atlanta United and Houston Dynamo revealed how weak the team is without him.

Ever since Mess left on international duty before that Sporting KC game, Inter Miami lost some of its goal-scoring ability and control of the game. Miami has had two wins, one draw, and two losses since the September international break started. With the October international break already looming, Miami may be saying goodbye to its last chance to reach the playoffs.

Messi must decide between Inter Miami and Argentina

Messi’s preference for Argentina and his love for his country may cost Inter Miami a chance to win the MLS Cup. Over the next month, Miami will have one final push to qualify for the wild-card stage of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Argentina does not have any games that overlap with Inter Miami.

Yet, the potentially crucial game against Charlotte is a day after Argentina’s World Cup Qualifying game against Peru. There is no chance Messi will play in that game when he reports for international duty.

Fans cannot blame Messi for participating in World Cup Qualifying with Argentina. Even if he is missing Inter Miami games, his priorities are with his home nation. That much has been true for years. However, what is in the best interest of Messi and Argentina is not in the best interest of Inter Miami.

Inter Miami is not in a position to drop points if it wants to make the playoffs. With five games remaining, Miami is five points outside of the last playoff spot. The club will have to make a tough decision on the outlook for this campaign against the next one. In other words, Inter Miami may sack off this season and let Messi heal to ensure that next season can be more fruitful. The last thing it needs, both commercially and statistically, is to not have Messi next season because of a prolonged injury.

Playing up to the fans

Messi will want to play with Argentina. Therefore, Inter Miami will have to manage its star carefully. Even if the club does not outwardly say it is resting Messi, it may be in the best interests of Inter Miami in the long term to err on the side of caution

In the immediate picture, Miami will hint at Messi playing in Major League Soccer games as it pushes for the playoffs. How could they not? Inter Miami is still one of the hot commodities when it comes to sports in the United States. For example, NBA star James Harden attended the US Open Cup Final. Even if the Philadelphia 76er is a minority owner in the Houston Dynamo, the potential to see Messi certainly played a role in his attendance.

Tata Martino has played a role in keeping interest alive in Messi, too. He is walking a tightrope to keep fans interested in Messi while also providing opposing teams some concern. Even if the opposition will have to prepare for Messi, the real reason is to keep interest in Inter Miami alive.

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For example, Tata Martino thought Messi’s injury was light enough that he could play in the US Open Cup Final. That helped keep ticket prices outrageously expensive and draw in fans to the stadium. Any viewers or attendees did not find out Messi was not playing until just before the game.

The remainder of the year

After the contest, Martino said Messi will surely play again this season. However, he covered his words by saying his participation is determined on a day-by-day and game-by-game basis. Consequently, Messi’s status with Inter Miami turns into a soap opera. Will he play? Won’t he play? You can find out if you show up to the game.

“Today, I saw a worn-out and tired team,” Martino said after the US Open Cup Final. “We were also limited by the injuries, so our performance was affected by those circumstances.”

That will continue to be the case if both Miami and Argentina utilize Messi for the rest of this season. One, or both, will suffer from the overuse of Messi in 2023.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Icon Sportswire