Lionel Messi’s Vancouver absence is unfortunate, but his Copa América run is paramount to U.S.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez were honorary captains and watched their sons begin Inter Miami’s Youth International Cup in the same stadium they now call home on Friday night.

Messi, the soft-spoken Argentine World Cup champion, applauded a packed crowd of parents for the sacrifices they make for their kids, and wished the children to cherish the experience for a lifetime — the weekend tournament, not just him public speaking.

Messi, Suárez and their fellow former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets should have been on the other side of the continent, cooped in a Vancouver hotel room, preparing to play in Saturday night’s match between Inter Miami and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. But they didn’t travel and won’t play.

“We understand the players who will not be here players who have revolutionized — especially Leo — the MLS. But we also have an obligation to take care of the health of the team, right?” Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said Friday when addressing the trio’s absence for the highly anticipated match in Vancouver.

More than 50,000 paying fans in Vancouver might be upset reading this, but Messi’s absence is for the greater good of the sport, especially in the United States.

Messi is transcendent with worldwide appeal, and his health is paramount. Three games in a week, including one on a turf field with 12-14 hours of travel, when he’s been managing a recent left leg injury, isn’t ideal when the weight of his country, and this country, and the sport will be on his back again this summer.

Inter Miami CF forward Luis Suarez and forward Lionel Messi, along with Sergio Busquets, won't play in Vancouver.
Inter Miami CF forward Luis Suarez and forward Lionel Messi, along with Sergio Busquets, won't play in Vancouver.

It’s the start of another big soccer moment in the United States with Copa América beginning next month, the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup and the 2026 World Cup shared with Canada and Mexico.

Messi isn’t at the driver seat in this adventure. He’s the vehicle.

Although it’s not his duty to promote the beautiful game loved around the world in a country that most favors its own version of football, all eyes will be on him to shine brightly and attract new fans to the sport domestically.

Messi will turn 37 next month. He’s in the twilight of a legendary career with GOAT credentials. But he’s closer to the end of his career despite still appearing in his prime.

Messi had five assists and a goal in a game earlier this month. He had a goal or an assist in his first eight MLS games this season. He had a goal and an assist in four straight games before getting hurt – on the other side of Canada — in Montreal on May 11.

Messi has 23 goals and 16 assists in 27 total games. Inter Miami has been in first place of the MLS Eastern Conference for most of the season. He delivered a Leagues Cup title just seven games into his Inter Miami career last summer, and has the club primed for a deep MLS postseason run later this fall.

But the Vancouver absence will be his 14th match missed due to various leg injuries that have limited him in action since joining Inter Miami last July.

The Inter Miami veterans were essentially allowed to stay home to avoid the rest they would have needed after playing in Vancouver, flying back home to South Florida, and suiting up again Wednesday and next Saturday at home.

Maybe next year, MLS schedule makers lighten Inter Miami’s travel load with a Wednesday game west of the Mississippi before a Saturday game in Seattle or Vancouver.

Maybe, they don’t schedule another game the Wednesday after a red-eye return from the other side of the country.

And hopefully, soccer fans in Vancouver can excuse Messi with some grace for the responsibility he’s going to undertake this summer in what could be the last major tournament of his standout career.

Messi will have 11 days between games to rest his legendary left leg, with Inter Miami matches against Atlanta United on Wednesday and St. Louis City on Saturday at Chase Stadium before he joins Argentina for Copa América.

Delivering Messi healthy to Argentina for Copa América isn’t just Inter Miami’s responsibility. It’s Major League Soccer’s, too.

So, soccer fans domestically and abroad can see Messi at his best on the world stage again this summer, where his greatness can be relished and appreciated in this country, before his legendary career comes to its eventual end in the near future.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No Messi in Vancouver: Inter Miami star’s no-show key to Copa América