Messi plays entire game for Inter Miami in loss as Charlotte qualifies for playoffs

Lionel Messi and Inter Miami kicked off their tour of Saudi Arabia by losing to Al-Hilal 4-3 on Monday. (AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Lionel Messi played the entire game on artificial turf in Inter Miami’s season finale, and Charlotte FC qualified for the MLS playoffs with a 1-0 victory on Saturday night.

Messi shared the spotlight with Charlotte’s bid to qualify for the postseason on the last day of the regular season in a game that drew 66,101 at Charlotte’s 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.

Messi, who led Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title, was the clear drawing card, and thousands in attendance were adorned in “Messi 10” jerseys.

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s top player went the distance in the meaningless game for Miami, which had already been eliminated from playoff contention. He finished with three shots and had two scoring chances. Messi’s apparent goal in the 49th minute was negated by an offside call, and his shot in the 62nd minute bounded off the crossbar.

Charlotte delivered for its fans. The second-year franchise needed a victory over Miami and help from other results to claim one of the two remaining Eastern Conference playoff spots in a scramble of five teams. The Chicago Fire and CF Montreal lost earlier Saturday and that allowed Charlotte to clinch a playoff berth with a victory.

Kerwin Vargas’ goal in the 13th minute was enough to seal the historic victory, and Charlotte held Miami without a goal down the stretch in a season in which it has yielded many late-game goals.

Charlotte will finish the 2023 season second in league attendance; Charlotte FC was averaging 33,634 entering Saturday’s regular- season finale.

Messi had 11 goals in 14 matches with Miami this season. The team has gone 8-2-4 when he plays; seven of those matches were on the team’s run to win its first-ever trophy by claiming the Leagues Cup championship. He has also appeared in six MLS games, starting four times and scoring one goal. He also played in one U.S. Open Cup semifinal.

But a leg injury derailed his season, and essentially ended Inter Miami’s chances of making the postseason. Miami is now 1-4-3 in eight matches without Messi since he joined the club. He was able to play as a reserve on Oct. 7 against Cincinnati, but Inter Miami lost 1-0 in the outcome that sealed its playoff elimination.

Messi is expected to play in Inter Miami’s colors on Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, when the team plays two exhibition matches in China. It’ll be the first time Inter Miami goes on a foreign tour. Argentina then has more World Cup qualifiers on Nov. 16 and Nov. 21 — after which Messi should get an extended break before Inter Miami begins preparing for 2024.

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