Lionel Messi returned to his happy place Saturday night, and like clockwork, the camera phones came out, and the Inter Miami fans bowed in reverence.
But relief and excitement were short-lived. After 35 largely uneventful minutes, and one FC Cincinnati goal, Miami was eliminated from MLS playoff contention.
And just like that, mere weeks after Messi hype raged, a half-season that started so promisingly fizzled out into disappointment. It had been deflated by Messi's mysterious injury. Miami had been climbing out of a pre-Messi hole, but with his status uncertain, that climb slowed — and then stopped, for good.
And stopped on Saturday, finally, agonizingly, in pouring Miami rain. Messi, after missing four games, began on the bench. He entered a 0-0 game in the 55th minute, knowing he needed a goal to keep Miami's playoff hopes alive.
Instead, he floated two free kicks over the bar.
He drifted into and out of space, as he always does, but didn't look like his typically magical and sprightly self on the ball.
Inter Miami had struck the post three times in the first half, before Messi entered. They looked to accelerate when their captain entered. But instead, they sputtered — and Cincinnati broke the deadlock.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 8, 2023
Elsewhere around the league, Montreal, the New York Bed Bulls and D.C. United won, officially ending Miami's playoff chase.
It had been an uphill chase ever since that unforgettable June day when Messi announced he was coming. He eventually arrived in mid-July with Inter winless in league play since May 13. They were languishing toward the bottom of the Eastern conference, with 18 points from 22 games.
For a magical month and a half, however, Messi transformed the club and the team. They won the Leagues Cup title. They toppled Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup. By mid-September, though still a few wins out of the playoff picture, they were the second-favorites to win MLS Cup.
But it was around that time, on Sept. 7, that Messi "felt something," according to Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni. He exited a World Cup qualifier slightly early, after curling in one of his classic free kicks.
He has played about 72 minutes of soccer since.
He rested, then returned, then pulled up injured again. Miami head coach Tata Martino shrouded the specifics in secrecy, teasing potential Messi comebacks ahead of three straight games. But he was never ready. Without him, Miami lost the Open Cup final, then failed to win two MLS matches against direct Eastern conference competitors.
So they arrived at DRV PNK Stadium on Saturday with hopes already fading.
Fans were nonetheless thrilled to see their hero pop off the team bus; and even more giddy when he strode up the sideline early in the second half; and on their feet by the time his famous No. 10 lit up the fourth official's board, an irrefutable sign that he'd be entering the game.
But they also seemed anxious. Because the end, some could tell, was near.
Cincinnati, the Supporters' Shield winner, was discombobulated and distant throughout the first half, but switched on when Messi appeared. As the No. 1 seed in the east, Cincy wanted no part of the GOAT in a first-round matchup. So they disposed of him, once and for all, until February.
Messi will now travel to South America for two World Cup qualifiers with Argentina. He'll miss Miami's penultimate game of the season, and might as well sit out Miami's finale as well. He'll have two more November qualifiers, but by then, his first MLS campaign will have ended very unlike it began: with an uncharacteristic, injury-induced dud.