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Messi scores in his return, helps Inter Miami get a 2-2 tie against Colorado

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi returned and helped salvage a tie for Inter Miami.

Messi scored shortly after checking in to begin the second half and helped set up Leo Afonso's go-ahead score two minutes later. But Cole Bassett scored in the 88th minute for the Colorado Rapids and the game ended in a 2-2 tie on Saturday night.

It was Messi's first appearance for Inter Miami since a hamstring issue led to him getting subbed out early in the second half of a CONCACAF Champions Cup match against Nashville on March 13. He had missed four Inter Miami games since, plus two games with Argentina.

He wasted little time announcing his return Saturday. Messi's fourth goal in as many MLS matches this season came in the 58th minute, beating Colorado keeper Zach Steffen with a low shot that hit the left goalpost, then skidded back across the goal mouth before settling into the next just inside of the right post.

“The most important thing was that he was feeling well and feeling comfortable,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said of Messi. “It's sad to give up two goals but we continue to make mistakes that cost us points. ... It has to do with not reading the game right, not reading the moment, and it cost us.”

Not long after play resumed, Messi sent a pass to David Ruiz, who found Afonso all alone in front. Afonso put it home for his first MLS goal, giving Inter Miami the lead.

It didn't last. Bassett knotted things late in regulation and Inter Miami (3-2-3) had to settle for just one point instead of three. Rafael Navarro got the first goal for Colorado (2-2-3), scoring late in the first half on a penalty kick.

A pair of fans got onto the field in the final minutes in separate incidents, presumably to try to get a selfie with Messi. They were both quickly escorted off by security, and time expired shortly after the second fan got onto the pitch.

It was a costly night for Inter Miami, which has been besieged by injuries — going back all the way to the team's seven-match, around-the-world preseason tour — and now has more of those to deal with. The team was without seven players Saturday, plus lost Leo Campana late in the first half with what appeared to be a hamstring issue and Afonso a few minutes after his second-half goal.

Messi and his three former standout Barcelona teammates — Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — were all available Saturday, though none started. It's a clear sign that Inter Miami is trying to be cautious with workloads for its four oldest players, all of them age 35 or older. Alba and Busquets entered in the second half.

“We needed Busi to have fewer minutes,” Martino said.

Afonso was scheduled to play the full match, Martino added, but the injury changed that and plans were quickly switched out of necessity.

Inter Miami is in a stretch where it will play five matches in a span of 15 days. The team had a 1-1 draw with New York City FC on March 30, lost the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions Cup matchup 2-1 to Monterrey at home on Wednesday and hosted the Rapids on Saturday. It then goes to Mexico for the second leg of the CONCACAF series this coming Wednesday before finishing the stretch at Kansas City on April 13.

Playing on Saturday would indicate Messi should be able to play in the Monterrey rematch, Martino said.

Messi emerged from the bench area in the 35th minute to start warming up behind one of the end lines, the mere sight of him sending fans into a frenzy.

They almost missed a Miami goal at the other end.

Simultaneous to the initial Messi sighting, Julian Gressel found a bit of room and fired a 30-yarder from straightaway. The ball curled just left, keeping the match scoreless.

A few minutes later, that changed. Colorado's Kevin Cabral got taken down in the box — a few yards from where Messi was going through his warmup routine — and Navarro beat Inter Miami goalie Drake Callender with the penalty kick for a 1-0 lead.

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AP MLS: https://apnews.com/hub/major-league-soccer