Lionel Messi, Inter Miami's playoff push off to hot start, but international break looms

LAFC's Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Inter Miami's Lionel Messi battle for the ball Sunday at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles. Inter Miami won the match 3-1. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
LAFC's Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Inter Miami's Lionel Messi battle for the ball Sunday at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles. Inter Miami won the match 3-1. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — From the moment Giorgio Chiellini arrived in Los Angeles, it was shocking how much he already knew about Major League Soccer. In a packed room full of media he started to give facts and tidbits about joining LAFC in the middle of a season and what the road ahead looked like for them.

Since then, the admiration and knowledge has only grown on his behalf. The road traveled brought one of the world’s best defenders ever around the United States. It culminated with the seasoned veteran helping lead LAFC, both on and off the field, to the MLS Cup title.

Simply put: he still remains a student of the game and in a short time embraced the intricacies of the league extremely well.

That’s why his comments Sunday after losing 3-1 to Inter Miami in L.A. carried some weight.

“This team is the best, by far, that I’ve faced in MLS to be honest,” Chiellini admitted. “By far.”

It’s hard to argue against that. The team he was applauding features global stars like Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. But prior to the trio’s arrival in South Florida, Inter Miami was a disaster and had quickly plummeted to the bottom of the standings. In order to make way for the shock move of bringing in superstars (similar to what LAFC did the year prior with Chiellini and Gareth Bale) Miami had to part ways with players and coach Phil Neville.

It was all part of the plan, one that has been working almost too perfectly.

Since Gerardo “Tata” Martino took over as head coach, Miami is unbeaten in 11 games across Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup and MLS action. Messi has racked up 11 goals and eight assists in that span.

It’s one of the most unbelievable turnarounds that makes life before Messi in June seem like it was years ago.

Then again, nobody should be surprised.

“He’s contributed consistently at an incredible pace already, but one we’ve seen from him through his entire career,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. “Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing none of us should not have expected. He’s the best player in the world. What did you think he was gonna do when he came here?”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 03: Facundo Farías #11 of Inter Miami CF celebrates his goal with Lionel Messi #10 in the first half during a match between Inter Miami CF and Los Angeles Football Club at BMO Stadium on September 03, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi and Facundo Farías celebrate a goal during Inter Miami's win over LAFC on Sunday in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Messi magic, Messi mania or whatever other way you want to classify it. The level has naturally increased throughout the squad. That might soon be a detriment for Miami though.

Because of the gained notoriety, many of Messi’s teammates have blossomed and been called up by their national teams. Crucial players such as Drake Callender, Robert Taylor, Benjamin Cremaschi, Josef Martinez and Sergei Kryvtsov will all be representing their respective countries in September's FIFA calendar for international matches. Messi, of course, will be with Argentina as World Cup qualifiers get started in South America.

But back stateside, Miami still has to play crucial games without key guys. Busquets and Alba will still be around, but can they suffice?

Miami is in desperation mode for points to make up for the dreadful first months of the season. A few losses could put Messi and Co. out of contention as there are only nine games remaining on their regular season schedule.

They’re currently eight points out of the 9 seed, which would grant Miami a wild-card match for the MLS Cup playoffs.

Months ago this wasn’t even a reasonable thought. Now, why not?

The win over reigning champion LAFC, on the road and in that fashion, certainly made this miracle seem a lot more feasible. What Miami is able to do while players are away during international play is important. There’s another FIFA calendar in October that would likely make some miss another couple of matches.

Imagining Tata giving the Argentine Football Association a call and saying Miami needs Messi more than they do due to a playoff push is not far-fetched.

Nothing is anymore.

“They are in a situation in which it is not easy to reach the playoffs, but I bet on it,” Chiellini said. “I think that they will join the playoffs.”

Miami players are more cautious in the approach and taking it step by step. Those steps seem so much more effortless now.

And unlike most teams around MLS, home field advantage doesn’t quite matter to the Herons. If they do get in, they’d probably instantly be considered Cup favorites. Because of Messi and friends, they’re going to have an abundance of support in any stadium they play in. That has been evident since July.

“Certainly they’re not unbeatable. I think we saw that tonight, and other nights as well,” said Cherundolo after LAFC’s loss to Miami.

We’re still waiting for someone to step up and prove that.