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Lionel Messi

Can Lionel Messi inspire Inter Miami to first-ever MLS play-offs?

Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise Inter Miami FC have turned from Eastern Conference whipping boys into a force to be reckoned with in just a few months.

After only winning five of their opening 22 league games in 2023 (D3, L14), the Herons looked up the creek without a paddle and were seemingly heading towards another bottom-place finish.

However, with the acquisitions of ex-Barcelona stalwarts Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, David Beckham has turned his side’s fortunes around in the summer.

Since Messi’s MLS debut in late August, Gerardo Martino’s men have racked up three wins in five league games on the back of a historic Leagues Cup triumph earlier last month.

Miami’s resurgence after the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s arrival has reignited their hopes of closing a mammoth gap on the Eastern Conference play-off line that currently stands at seven points.

But the Herons have quickly become dependent on the 2022 World Cup winner, as witnessed by a dreadful 5-2 defeat at Atlanta United last weekend when Messi wasn’t in the squad.

With seven games left and everything to play for, Martino’s team must bounce back, and out-of-sorts Toronto FC’s visit to DRV PNK Stadium on Wednesday night looks like a prime opportunity to get back on track.

Despite the recent change in fortunes, the Fort Lauderdale outfit still languish 15 points adrift of the heralded 43-point barrier, which has historically been sufficient for play-off qualification.

Since 21 points are still on the table, it’s possible Miami can make a late comeback, but room for error is running thin as the fixture schedule gets thicker.

As revealed by the MLS website, Martino has confirmed Messi could skip up to three of the remaining seven league games.

That’s the last thing the Argentine coach needs at this critical juncture, especially with ominous-looking matches against Eastern Conference leaders Cincinnati FC and runners-up Orlando City waiting in the wings.

Miami will need Messi at his best if they’re to overcome those obstacles and remain relevant in the play-off frame, but it’s only their end of the bargain.

Wayne Rooney’s DC United are currently occupying the last qualification spot in the east, with as many as four sides sitting between them and the Herons.

But given the Washington giants have played two more games than Miami, a seven-point gap between the teams seems negligible.

As long as Messi is on the pitch, Martino’s men cannot be discounted as viable play-off contenders.

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