Lionel Messi’s load management begins: Why he’ll sit out various MLS games throughout 2024


 

Lionel Messi sat out Inter Miami’s Sunday match against Montreal, and the team’s stated reason was simple: “rest.”

The rationale is also simple: Messi played Thursday, and will play again Wednesday in the most significant of Miami’s four competitions, the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Each of its 34 MLS regular-season games, on the other hand, is relatively insignificant. Inter needs to win around only 13 of them to reach the playoffs. (Charlotte qualified for last year’s playoffs with 10 wins.)

Miami, the most talented team in MLS history, shouldn’t have trouble hitting that laughably low benchmark.

Its 2024 season, then, will be defined by up to 20 games in three other competitions: The CCC, the midsummer Leagues Cup and midautumn MLS playoffs.

Those are the 20 games for which Miami wants and needs Messi. The Argentine, for his part, also wants to peak at this summer’s Copa América. That international tournament, a 16-team Pan-American rumble, is almost certainly his priority. He has also reportedly had discussions about competing with Argentina at the Paris Olympics.

Between Inter Miami and Argentina, there are, technically, up to 83 games on Messi’s 2024 calendar. That includes the Olympics, where his participation remains uncertain; and MLS games that overlap with national team duty. The truer maximum is likely around 68. But still, 68 is far too many.

Inter Miami knows this. Head coach Tata Martino knows this. Ever since the very first day of preseason, Martino has spoken consistently about moderating Messi and his other aging stars. They will play “most games,” he promised. But “we’re obligated to have a healthy team that can carry us through an entire season,” he said.

So it was, and is, inevitable that he would regulate his NBA-style superteam with NBA-style load management.

It’s unclear whether the physical toll of early season games has affected Miami’s plans. Messi struggled with a minor adductor injury during preseason. By the end of Inter’s globetrotting tour, he also admitted to being “a little tired from all this travel.”

Then there’s the hamstring problem that has nagged him intermittently for years, and sidelined him for six weeks last fall. An athletic trainer massaged the back of Messi’s right leg during the first half of Thursday’s game in Nashville.

Messi also narrowly avoided a devastating injury Thursday. A Nashville defender’s studs left him writhing on the ground in pain, slamming the grass with his right palm. After a minute of treatment, he reentered the game, and Martino said afterward that Messi was fine.

Sunday’s game against Montreal, though, was always a natural choice for some much-needed rest. CCC is the priority, “probably the most important tournament we have to play in,” Martino said prior to the season. It’s Inter Miami’s ticket to the 2025 Club World Cup, which would be the club’s only opportunity to compete with Messi against top European clubs.

Thursday’s game in Nashville, and the return leg Wednesday in Miami, are the CCC Round of 16. Inter, after a 2-2 draw in Leg 1, is favored to advance.

If it does, as long as its alive, MLS games in between CCC games will be prime candidates for load management. The quarterfinals would be in early April. The semifinals are slated for late April and early May. The final is June 2.

It’s unclear how thoroughly Inter Miami has mapped out Messi’s personal schedule, but the following games could be rest days:

  • April 6 vs. Colorado, sandwiched between the quarterfinals

  • April 27 at New England, sandwiched between the semifinals

  • May 29 vs. Atlanta. Inter plays Vancouver on May 25, Atlanta on May 29 and St. Louis on June 1. The St. Louis game would be rescheduled to accommodate the June 2 final, which would be the single most important match of Miami’s season.

There will be others, surely, throughout a busy summer. There will be more amid tens of thousands of miles of international travel in the fall, with the playoffs approaching.

Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and (especially) Luis Suarez will also be load managed. Only Alba started Sunday’s game, in part because he missed Thursday’s with an illness.

Busquets came off the bench for 25 minutes. Suarez played 14 plus stoppage time. Messi watched on in a collared shirt, from a pitchside suite, as Miami slumped to its first loss of the season, 3-2.



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