Messi’s possible return injects excitement into Inter Miami’s playoff bid

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With Inter Miami’s playoff hopes hanging by a thread, all eyes are on Lionel Messi as the team prepares to host FC Cincinnati on Saturday. 

Messi has been sidelined since aggravating a leg injury during a World Cup qualifying match for Argentina on September 7. Despite initial attempts to return, he hasn’t played since his early exit in Miami’s match against Toronto FC on September 20.

During his absence, Inter Miami has struggled, losing ground in the playoff race. They also suffered a 2-1 defeat to the Houston Dynamo in the US Open Cup final. 

In three recent MLS matches, they managed just two draws and suffered a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Fire.

The Herons currently sit 14th in the Eastern Conference, but with only five points separating them from a playoff spot and having games in hand over most teams ahead of them, their playoff hopes aren’t entirely extinguished.

Inter Miami’s head coach, Tata Martino, and Messi’s teammate Sergio Busquets have both hinted at Messi’s imminent return, and Friday brought more optimism as Messi participated in training. 

Assistant coach Javier Morales said, “Every day it gets better,” but the final decision regarding Messi’s inclusion remained uncertain.

Facing Inter Miami is no easy task, as FC Cincinnati (65 points) leads the league and has already secured the Supporters’ Shield. The club’s rapid transformation from a lower-tier team just two seasons ago to the league’s top squad has been remarkable. However, their recent four-match unbeaten streak was halted with a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls after Coach Pat Noonan rotated seven new players into the starting lineup.

Luciano Acosta, with 16 goals, trails Denis Bouanga (17 goals) in the MLS Golden Boot race. Both players have two matches left to play, adding another layer of intrigue to Saturday’s clash.

For Inter Miami, securing a playoff spot will be a challenging endeavour, with them currently residing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They must win and hope for other results to go their way to extend their season.

Cincinnati faces the decision of whether to rest their key players ahead of the international break. Coach Noonan expressed the need to prioritise player health, which adds uncertainty to their lineup for the game.

With the regular season’s end fast approaching, the MLS playoff picture is coming into focus. Teams are vying for playoff spots and positioning, making each match crucial. Two playoff spots are up for grabs in the Eastern Conference, while three remain unclaimed in the Western Conference.

The playoff format features a single-game wildcard match between the eighth and ninth-placed teams in each conference, with the winners advancing to best-of-three series in the first round.

The top four teams in each conference earn home-field advantage for the first and, if necessary, the third games. The path to the MLS Cup is set, and every match counts as teams aim for the ultimate prize.

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