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Lionel Messi returns, Inter Miami eliminated from MLS Cup Playoffs contention after loss to FC Cincinnati

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Even Lionel Messi's return to the pitch from injury wasn't enough to save Inter Miami's season. The Herons were eliminated from playoff contention as they lost 1-0 to FC Cincinnati at DRV PNK Stadium on Saturday behind a goal from Alvaro Barreal. Due to D.C. United and CF Montreal winning their matches, only a win would have kept their playoff hopes alive, but it was a night of poor execution in the rain as their hopes of a second trophy evaporated. The teams combined to hit the post five times during the match, and Messi's best chance came from a free kick that he skied.

Rusty after not featuring in Miami's last four matches, Saturday showed that there are some situations that even Messi's magic can't bail the Herons out of. Nonetheless, it was still a successful season that saw them win their first trophy in club history by defeating Nashville SC in the Leagues Cup.

While the Herons will face Charlotte FC twice during the next week before their official season comes to an end, a lot of these players will be on international duty while those matches take place. Lionel Messi, Facundo Farias, David Ruiz, Josef Martinez, Diego Gomez, Robert Taylor, Kamal Miller and Edison Azcona have all been called up to their respective national teams so Saturday was the last home match of the season for them. When they're away, Tata Martino will get a chance to look at some players deeper down his roster as the offseason will bring a lengthy evaluation of who will remain next season.

Here's what to know:

Why did Messi miss time?

During his time on international duty with Argentina last month, Messi reaggravated and old injury causing him to miss a World Cup qualifying match versus Bolivia. He did return to Miami and played versus Toronto FC on Sept. 20 but only played 37 minutes in that match. The Argentine would go on to miss four consecutive matches where Miami went winless. During that time the Herons lost control of their playoff destiny and couldn't afford to drop points in their remaining three matches while also needing help from the teams around them. While Messi had a few chances from free kicks during the match, even he was unable to turn the tide on Miami's season to keep them in playoff contention.

What's next?

While the offseason hasn't started yet, preparing for it starts now. Miami were able to build almost an entirely new roster in just a month and win a trophy. But they were lacking in critical depth in attacking and defensive positions as Major League Soccer has one of the most demanding schedules in the world. Now having qualified for Concacaf Champions Cup, the Herons will only have a more demanding road next season and they'll need to be prepared for that. Offering the ability to play with Messi, Sergio Busquests and Jordi Alba is one of the best recruiting tools in the world but evaluation needs to be done on who Martino would like to keep from the current roster. Miller has already signed a contract extension and ones for other key members of the team like goalkeeper Drake Callender may follow as well but tough decisions need to be made about players like Dixon Arroyo. They've been good enough to get Miami to this point but are they able to take the Herons into their next era?

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Messi and company are eliminated!

That's it! With this 1-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami are eliminated from playoff contention due to wins by D.C. United and CF Montreal. Their season will come to an end next weekend but is highlighted by Lionel Messi's arrival and winning the Leagues Cup. Winless in four matches without Messi, the Herons lost ground in the playoff race that they weren't able to overturn in only 35 minutes on the pitch from the Argentine superstar in this match.

October 8, 2023, 1:33 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:33 pm EDT
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Another free kick in a dangerous area

Can Miami get a goal back to make these last few moments interesting? 

October 8, 2023, 1:31 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:31 pm EDT
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Five minutes of extra time 

Messi has the ball in the box but he's called for a foul on a Cincinnati defender. Time is ticking away on the Herons season. 

October 8, 2023, 1:29 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:29 pm EDT
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It's a goal for Cincinnati

Kubo tried a shot from distance that Calledder could only parry and Alvaro Barreal followed it up to score. Now Miami needs two goals in 11 minutes to keep their season alive.

October 8, 2023, 1:17 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:17 pm EDT
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More changes coming 

Robert Taylor and Stefanelli enter for Martinez and Yedlin as Tata Martino throws everything forward with 14 minutes remaining in the match.

October 8, 2023, 1:14 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:14 pm EDT
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Super Drake Callender

Coming up yet again when it matters, this time it's a stop on Brandon Vazquez from very close range. On his birthday, Callender is putting in on of his best performances of the season. 

October 8, 2023, 1:04 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:04 pm EDT
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The post is everyone's friend 

This is the fifth time that a team has hit the post as there's no way that this game should still be 0-0. Both teams have had their chances but there will be a goal before long.

October 8, 2023, 1:03 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 9:03 pm EDT
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A little rusty

Messi skies this free kick but he'll get more chances before this match is out with 30 minutes to go.

October 8, 2023, 12:58 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:58 pm EDT
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Messi is fouled and Miami has a free kick

Messi has slipped a few times since coming in but this one was in his advantage to get a set piece in a dangerous area.

October 8, 2023, 12:55 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:55 pm EDT
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With Miami's season on the line, here comes Messi

After only playing 37 mintues of soccer in the last 30 days, Messi returns to the pitch in order to try and save Miami's season. If the Herons win they can fight another day in the playoff race but with D.C. United leading, they must win. Ruiz and Aiviles will exit and Jean Mota and Messi will enter. This also sees Miami shift to a more familiar 4-3-3

October 8, 2023, 12:53 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:53 pm EDT
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Callender is forced into another massive save

Cincinnati thought they had a goal as Arias got into a great position in the box. Callender has come up big time and time again but his two saves tonight could be the difference between if Miami makes the playoffs or tonight is their last meaningful match of the season. 

October 8, 2023, 12:48 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:48 pm EDT
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No Messi to start the second half

FC Cincinnati has withdrawn Sergio Santos from the game and brought on Aaron Boupendza to kick the attack into high gear.

October 8, 2023, 12:44 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:44 pm EDT
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We've reached the half 

It's level but Pat Noonan stated that his team has had no courage with the ball. Miami had the better chances but they couldn't make them count as elsewhere D.C. United also took a lead over NYCFC. If D.C. wins their match and Miami loses, the Herons are eliminated from playoff contention.

October 8, 2023, 12:30 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:30 pm EDT
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Sergio Busquets is down

It looks like a knock to his ankle but he'll continue on in the match. Considering the miles on his legs and the conditions in the rain that won't let up, mobility will be something to watch.

October 8, 2023, 12:14 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:14 pm EDT
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Good things come in threes

Except when that's hitting the woodwork. I've never seen something like this as Miami have now hit the crossbar three times. Rain is picking up in DRV PNK stadium as Sergio Busquets drives a free kick off the wall.

October 8, 2023, 12:06 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:06 pm EDT
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Off the post yet again!

This time it's Josef Martinez, it has been quite a fast start to the match as Miami isn't afraid to shoot in the first period of play. The Herons have had sustained pressure in possession only bending when Cincinnati goes on the break.

October 8, 2023, 12:03 AM
Oct. 07, 2023, 8:03 pm EDT
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Santos again!

On the counter, he's unstoppable as Brandon Vasquez was able to settle the ball excellently but Drake Callender stood tall to keep the match level. We're only 12 mintues in but Miami can't stop Cincinnati on the counter at all.

October 7, 2023, 11:53 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 7:53 pm EDT
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Off the bar!

It was the fist real chance for either team as the first shot of the game crashed off the bar from Tomas Aviles. It was so close to the opening goal but then on the break, Sergio Santos almost broke down Miami on the counter as this game will be able to change quickly. 

October 7, 2023, 11:50 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 7:50 pm EDT
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We're underway in Fort Lauderdale

It's a must win game or Miami can be knocked out of playoff contention tonight. 

October 7, 2023, 11:41 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 7:41 pm EDT
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The playoff picture is getting tight

Inter Miami CF is eliminated from Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs contention with:

  1. Inter Miami CF LOSS vs. FC Cincinnati AND NYCFC WIN at D.C. United OR
  2. Inter Miami CF LOSS vs. FC Cincinnati AND D.C. United WIN vs. NYCFC OR
  3. Inter Miami CF LOSS/DRAW vs. FC Cincinnati AND CF Montréal WIN vs. Portland Timbers OR
  4. Inter Miami CF LOSS vs. FC Cincinnati AND New York Red Bulls WIN vs. Toronto FC OR
  5. Inter Miami CF DRAW vs. FC Cincinnati AND Chicago Fire FC WIN/DRAW vs. Charlotte FC AND NYCFC WIN at D.C. United
October 7, 2023, 11:34 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 7:34 pm EDT
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A full-strength Cincinnati side

After resting Vazquez and Acosta in their last match, FC Cincinnati are fresh and ready to try and keep Miami out of the playoffs.

Starters: Celentano, Barreal, Murphy, Miazga, Hagglund, Arias, Nwobodo, Moreno, Acosta, Santos, Vazquez

Reserves: Kann, Kubo, Angulo, Boupendza, Badji, Mosquera, Pinto, Halsey, Valenzuela

October 7, 2023, 11:34 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 7:34 pm EDT
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Inter Miami's lineup is in

An important name returns to the squad as Lionel Messi makes the bench for the first time in four matches. Tata Martino will shift to a back three to try and counter FC Cincinnati's setup but given the names on the bench, this will be a flexible formation with changes coming quickly if needed in the second half.

Starters: Callender, Allen, Miller, Kryvtsov, Aviles, Yedlin, Cremaschi, Busquets, Ruiz, Martinez, Farias

Reserves: Dos Santos, Mota, Sailor, Arroyo, Messi, Ulloa, Taylor, RObinson, Stefanelli

October 7, 2023, 10:53 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 6:53 pm EDT
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Messi arrives with the team

As he's been rolling solo for matches during which he hasn't been in the squad, this boosts the belief that Messi will feature tonight. Jordi Alba and Leonardo Campana won't play a part in the match but the return of their talisman is only a good thing for Inter Miami.

October 7, 2023, 10:43 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 6:43 pm EDT
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Hello and welcome

Only three games remain for Inter Miami but if they don't win tonight, the Herons could be eliminated from playoff contention. The goal is clear, defeat FC Cincinnati and survive to fight another day. The issue is that Cincinnati is the best team in the Eastern Conference and Miami are winless in their last four matches after Lionel Messi has been absent with an injury. He could return to the squad tonight but will it be enough to push the Herons to a win?

October 7, 2023, 10:35 PM
Oct. 07, 2023, 6:35 pm EDT