Lionel Messi could make his return to Major League Soccer action on Saturday with the Argentine hoping to give a boost to Inter Miami’s flagging playoff hopes.
Messi has played just 37 minutes for his club since September 3 having returned with an injury from international duty with Argentina last month.
His absence has been sorely felt, with Miami winless in its last three league games and losing the US Open Cup final to Houston.
Miami crashed to a 4-1 defeat to Chicago on Wednesday without the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner but the following day he was named in Argentina’s squad for its upcoming South American World Cup qualifiers.
That prompted speculation that he might be in contention to face Eastern Conference leaders Cincinnati on Saturday and the optimism increased after he trained on Thursday and Friday.
But in keeping with the club’s approach throughout the injury saga, there was no clue from assistant coach Javier Morales about whether Messi would start.
“It’s more of the same. We have to evaluate him day by day. He trained yesterday, he will train today, and afterwards we will surely make a decision. But every day he is doing better,” he told reporters.
If Miami is to achieve what is now an unlikely goal of extending its season into the playoffs, it will surely need Messi to be on the field.
Gerardo Martino’s side is next to bottom of the Eastern Conference, five points behind the last playoff spot, ninth place, with three games remaining.
Although Miami has at least a game in hand on all but one of its rivals for that spot, its destiny is no longer in its own hands and it needs other results to fall in its favor.
Cincinnati is the top ranked team in MLS having already won the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular season record and with it the top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Having achieved its target, it rested several key players for Wednesday’s game against New York Red Bulls, suffering a 2-1 home defeat.
But with the international break coming up coach Pat Noonan will have to decide whether or not to recall his starters for the game in Fort Lauderdale.
“You have to… take what’s in the best interest of the individual player and their health so that we can go through the stretch with as many healthy bodies as possible,” he said after the Red Bulls game.
Saturday is the penultimate round of action for most teams in MLS with a few playoff spots still up for grabs and the chance for a top four finish and home field advantage in the first round of the post-season another key factor.
Two spots remain open in the East with three still to be claimed in the West.
In this season’s format, the eighth placed team in each conference will host a single game wildcard match against the ninth finisher.
The winners will then go into round one which features best of three series. The top four teams have home field advantage for the first and — if needed — third games.
Then the conference semifinals, finals and MLS Cup itself are all single games.