No Messi (again) & 2-1 home loss to Monterrey has Inter Miami in trouble in Champions Cup | Opinion

This was, by a lot, the biggest soccer match and the most notable and hurtful DNP -- did not play -- of Lionel Messi’s time with Inter Miami.

It told you the hamstring injury that has shelved him the past few weeks was no act, no excuse for rest.

And it screams, beyond most doubt now, that Miami’s grueling, money-grab international preseason tour to capitalize on Messi’s arrival has come back to haunt, and taunt. Miami had seven players out injured Wednesday night, Messi as always by far the most important.

(Makes you wonder about the wisdom of a club with a nucleus of older players enduring the travel grind of trips to play preseason games in El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Dallas. But on to the present.)

This game Wednesday, at home vs. Mexican power Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament, was the most important match in Messi’s now nine-months with Miami in Major League Soccer as well as concurrent tournaments like this one.

Wednesday was the first leg of these two games vs. Monterrey.

The one leg that mattered was the right one containing Messi’s troublesome hamstring.

The foot on Tomas Aviles’ own right leg rattled the net for a 1-0 Miami lead in the 19th minute Wednesday.

But Monterrey would pull even 1-1 in the 69th minute on Maximiliano Meza’s short punch-in off a corner kick, a goal confirmed by review. Then the Mexican club would win, agonizingly, 2-1, in the 89th minute, when Jorge Rodriguez’s shot found the upper right corner.

Ultimately, it was the leg that wouldn’t allow Messi to play Miami limping in a precarious spot now.

The second-leg match is next Wednesday across the southern border in Monterrey, Mexico, and Inter Miami must win and scored at least two goals to advance to the semifinal. A 1-0 win would not suffice. Away goals are the first tiebreaker after aggregate total goals. Another Monterrey win by any score would eliminate Miami.

Monterrey coach Fernando Ortiz boasted before the game, “We have better players than Inter Miami.”

Sans Messi, at least, he may be right.

“He’s game to game. This wasn’t the game. He wasn’t ready,” coach Tata Martino said after the match. “Every day he feels better, but today felt like too high a risk.”

We presume Messi will be ready to play in next week’s must-win and that sitting out the first leg was a strategic gamble that failed -- that Messi probably could have played, considering he’d returned to the practice pitch on Tuesday.

Miami’s frustration and desperation for a home win Wednesday showed in four yellow cards and a red shown David Ruiz -- which preceded the tying goal with Miami a man down. The blunder by Ruiz, 20, proved a crippling blow.

“I liked the way we competed, I think we did a really good job and that’s what I consider most important,”said coach Tata Martino. “I also think it was a learning opportunity for the club and our younger players, and facing that, we played up to the high standards of the match.”

Miami plays an MLS match in between the Monterrey quiniela, at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, but Messi seems very unlikely to play and risk aggravating the hamstring and being unavailable for the second leg vs. Monterrey. The MLS season is still young -- only seven of 34 matches in -- and Miami is off to a solid 3-2-2 start that has the Herons on early playoff pace.)

The Champions Cup and its great rewards are what Miami is after.

The winning club receives $5 million in cash plus a spot in the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup -- a huge deal. This would be an ultimate global measuring stick for a Messi-led Inter Miami. Club World Cup winners have included the mighty likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.

The CONCACAF Champions Cup winner also wins an invite to FIFA’s new Intercontinental Cup tournament.

But the Club World Cup is the bigger invite, both monetarily and in tradition and prestige.

Monterrey previously had qualified for next year’s Club World Cup so unlike Miami does not need to win this Champions Cup title for an invite.

One might have thought the absence of real incentive in Monterrey would have provided a big edge for Miami.

Zero indication of that Wednesday night.