Ticket prices are soaring in Harrison, N.J., and not because the New York Red Bulls is inching closer in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
With Lionel Messi on the other side of the pitch, as fans anticipate his MLS regular-season debut with Inter Miami, the host Red Bulls is out to keep its focus and improve its place in the standings Saturday night.
Messi, who won a club-record 34 trophies for Barcelona in Spain’s La Liga, already has a Leagues Cup title with Inter Miami. But because Messi has played every minute of the past six matches, Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said he is fatigued and has not committed to playing him Saturday. The 36-year-old also could enter as a substitute.
“I understand the expectations the rest of the world has to watch him, and that is undeniable,” Martino said. “But I cannot act based on that because then I would risk doing things wrong.”
After leading Argentina to the World Cup title in December, he signed a contract through 2025 to play for Inter Miami on July 15, then scored 10 goals in eight Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup matches.
Messi contributed a pair of quality assists in Wednesday’s penalty-shootout win over FC Cincinnati in the semifinal of the U.S. Open Cup. He also scored last Saturday when Miami beat Nashville SC to win the Leagues Cup trophy.
“I’m living a dream,” Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said. “Sometimes I sit down and I really think of the position I’m in, on the field with Messi, the best player in the world, and it’s unbelievable.”
As far as games that count in the MLS standings, the Herons hope Messi pushes them back into contention. With 12 matches left, Miami (5-14-3, 18 points) is last in the Eastern Conference, 14 points below the playoff line, and has gone 0-8-3 in MLS play since defeating New England 2-1 on May 13.
The Red Bulls (7-9-8, 29 points), who is seeking its 14th straight playoff appearance, is three points out of the last playoff spot. It returned from the Leagues Cup break with a dramatic 1-0 victory Sunday over D.C. United.
John Tolkin scored the game-winner in the 88th minute and the Red Bulls enter its encounter with Messi after three straight home victories across all competitions.
“That should be a good one,” New York defender Sean Nealis said. “It should be a fun one. Everyone’s excited for that one.”