Lionel Messi and Inter Miami face the MLS champions on Sunday in their quest to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles FC is second in the Western Conference and will pose one of the most difficult tests for a Miami club that is 10 points out of the playoffs with 10 games remaining.
Miami’s hopes of making the playoffs were dashed on Wednesday as they were held to a goalless draw at home by Nashville after a winless run of 11 games in MLS prior to Messi’s arrival had them rock bottom of the league.
That outcome came following Messi’s first regular-season appearance, a 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
“We have tunnel vision on our goal, which is making the playoffs, so this feels like a loss, but we’re just going to keep moving forward,” Canadian defender Kamal Miller said following Wednesday’s stalemate.
Messi led Miami to victory in the mid-season Leagues Cup event and into the US Open Cup final, and he has 11 goals in all competitions.
But he was far from his best versus Nashville, prompting questions about whether his hectic schedule since his debut has taken its toll.
“We got a little too accustomed to titles, finals, and winning in New York, but we have to keep going because a lot can still happen,” Argentine coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino remarked.
LAFC is seven points behind Western Conference leader St. Louis City, but they are projected to be among the MLS Cup favourites once again.
- More than Messi – Head coach Steve Cherundolo is adamant that his players not fall into the trap of focusing solely on Messi’s threat.
“There’s a lot of talk about Messi and the newfound Miami strength and results.” But for us, it’s another home game that we want to win, and I think focusing on one person is a mistake,” he told reporters.
Even if such a scheme could be devised, the former USA international believes it would be futile considering the talent of the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
“I think it’s an illusion to think you’re going to stop him for 90 minutes because of his ability and the way he plays.” He’ll have a few of chances.
“That’s just the way this game works and what he’s been able to do throughout his career against every team,” he explained.
“If you try to focus on that, you’ll miss out on chances to actually beat Miami.” And that’s where our concentration is in ensuring that they, as a collective, have to defend, work hard, and put in a very intense and challenging shift to beat us,” he said.
The other standout match of the weekend is Saturday’s rivalry match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers in the Pacific North West.
While third-placed Seattle should be well on their way to the playoffs, Portland still has work to do, sitting in 12th place but only four points out of the final playoff berth.
The derby has a lengthy history, dating back to the 1970s in the previous NASL and continuing in other levels before the teams migrated to MLS.
Saturday’s games also feature Dallas, which is looking to earn a playoff spot in the West, against a significantly reinforced Atlanta team that is sixth in the East.