The wildest Lionel Messi-Inter Miami dream ends with a whimper in Monterrey

MONTERREY, MEXICO - APRIL 10: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami reacts against Monterrey in the first half during the CONCACAF Champions Cup 2024 Round of Sixteen second leg at BBVA Stadium on April 10, 2024 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Inter Miami’s wildest dreams would climax in the summer of 2025, the last of Lionel Messi’s contract. They’d culminate on a shiny new stage, the Club World Cup, against and among European superpowers. They’d amplify Messi-mania and lift American soccer to new heights, or at least that was the vision.

But they fizzled Wednesday night in the north of Mexico. Fantasies became frustration. Lofty ambitions all but disappeared a full 14 months shy of becoming reality. Messi and Miami got pummeled, 3-1, by Monterrey at a bumping Estadio BBVA and lost in the CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals, 5-2 on aggregate.

They lost because Messi missed the first leg of two with an injury. They lost because his overmatched teammates made mistakes. They lost for dozens of reasons that disappointed fans will dissect for days to come.

But the overarching reason was rather simple. Even a GOAT couldn’t close the still-wide gap between Major League Soccer and the best of Mexico’s Liga MX.

Monterrey was better. Monterrey is better. On Wednesday, the evidence was everywhere.

It raced up and down the left flank, and bustled through midfield. It nestled into the space that Messi typically enjoys in MLS, but that closed up a half-second sooner than usual. It blinded Inter Miami over the first 20 minutes of a one-sided second half, when Rayados, as Monterrey is known, took control and drove home the dagger.

A goalkeeper’s gaffe had gifted them a 1-0 lead on the night.

It was those dominant 20 minutes, though, that broke Miami. Germán Berterame blasted Monterrey into a 4-1 aggregate lead. Six minutes after Berterame’s belter, Jesús Gallardo made it 5-1.

And that’s when the olés began ringing all around a stadium known as "El Gigante de Acero” — The Steel Giant.

“That is where the tournament ended for us,” Miami coach Tata Martino said.

That’s when Luis Suarez started hurling words at an innocent referee.

That’s when Jordi Alba’s frustration boiled over, into one yellow card, then a second and a red.

Messi, meanwhile, looked defeated. By the 90th minute, after assisting Miami’s lone goal, he seemed resigned to his fate. He greeted the final whistle with respectful handshakes and hugs, signs that he’d been beaten by a superior team.

For most of the 90, he’d fought with his customary fire — often pensive, sometimes seemingly dormant, waiting for opportunities to explode. He heard boos from a raucous crowd whenever he touched the ball. He responded with a few probing moves in midfield and a few snaps at the ankles of Monterrey defenders.

But he, too, was frustrated. After whipping a 25th-minute shot barely over the crossbar, he was furious at teammates for not finding him sooner. When they did find him, and when he found slivers of space, his usually incisive passes were often intercepted.

And when he failed to juke past Gerardo Arteaga later in the first half, he jawed with the Monterrey defender.

When he won a first-half free kick but skewed it well wide of the net, he looked down at the tattered grass, increasingly irritated.

Fans use their mobile phones to take photos as Inter Miami's Lionel Messi takes a corner kick during a CONCACAF Champions Cup quarter final second leg soccer match against Monterrey at the BBVA stadium in Monterrey, Mexico, Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Fans inside BBVA stadium in Monterrey, Mexico, booed Inter Miami's Lionel Messi throughout Wednesday night's CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinal. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

In his first start since March 13, after four weeks sidelined by a hamstring injury, Messi was far off his best. But of course, he was far from Inter Miami’s primary problem. Their problem was a shallow, top-heavy roster depleted by injuries and inhibited by MLS’ self-imposed spending restrictions.

MLS clubs can spend limitlessly on three Designated Players (DPs), so they can afford Messi and Sergio Busquets. But byzantine roster rules limit their ability to build thorough teams around their superstars. In last week’s first leg, Miami fielded academy products and a second-round draft pick. Monterrey fielded a dozen DP-level players and stole a 2-1 win in the second half.

In Wednesday’s second leg, Miami only filled nine of the 12 allowable spots on its bench — and made zero substitutions. Monterrey took advantage when legs began to tire and brought talented reinforcements off the bench to close out a resounding win.

This, Martino said last week, is where MLS clubs feel the impacts of their “handicap,” the roster rules.

“We have restrictions that [create] differences,” Martino said, and his words proved prescient.

Those differences, plus some rotten luck, deflated their dreams.

The Champions Cup was their only known ticket to the inaugural 32-team Club World Cup, which is coming to the U.S. next summer. Real Madrid and Manchester City have qualified. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are in. Twenty-one teams from six continents have already booked their tickets, including three from CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America. The fourth and final CONCACAF slot will go to the winner of the 2024 Champions Cup.

So Inter Miami had prioritized it. They have rested players, including Messi, in MLS games. They put everything they had into this continental championship, and in the Round of 16, against Nashville SC, “everything” was plenty.

But against Monterrey, a top-three team in Mexico, it wasn’t sufficient.

There is still one wild-card berth in the Club World Cup available. It will go to an American team, because the U.S. will host, but organizers haven’t said how (or to whom) it will be awarded. “Further details [will be] provided in due course,” FIFA has said.

So there is hope. Those wild dreams haven’t totally died. But in Messi’s first full season, Inter Miami’s run at North American soccer’s biggest prize is already over.