Messi uncharacteristically left Argentina‘s World Cup qualifying win last week over Ecuador before the final whistle, and although he made Wednesday’s trip to Bolívia, he was not named in coach Lionel Scaloni’s 23-man squad for the 3-0 victory at La Paz’s high altitude.
Miami coach Gerardo Martino said early Friday that Messi is “fine” but he wanted to wait until after the last training before the game to make a decision about the star’s availability against Atlanta.
“We will be careful with him because we have a lot of important games in a short span,” Martino said.
Miami’s schedule was packed before the international break, and it has a quick turnaround before Wednesday’s home match with Toronto FC. Messi will also have more World Cup qualifiers to navigate in October, with CONMEBOL qualifiers against Paraguay (Oct. 12) and Peru (Oct. 17).
Miami’s games around that time would both be against Charlotte FC: at home on Oct. 18 and in North Carolina on Oct. 21 to close out the regular season.
“This is something that we knew would happen at some point, but that he would begin to get used to our needs, especially for seasons like this with a lot of matches,” Martino said in regard to the prospect of resting Messi more due to his schedule.
“Playing each match, 90 minutes each game, two to three days with travel in between would get difficult.”
Messi trained with the team Thursday and Friday, and although Atlanta plays on turf, the 36-year-old said in his lone news conference last month that he played on turf as a youth and wouldn’t have a problem doing it again.
“The truth is my youth was spent on artificial turf, my whole life was on that pitch,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again.”
Atlanta is one of two MLS teams left on Inter Miami’s remaining away schedule that play on turf. Charlotte is the other, and Miami won’t play there until the last game of the regular season, by which time Miami might already have sewn up a playoff spot.
If it does make the playoffs, Miami could well face a trip another Eastern Conference clubs that has turf — the New England Revolution. Despite their recent managerial issues, the Revs are currently in second place in the standings.
A win Saturday could propel Miami — with some help elsewhere — from 14th to 11th in the Eastern Conference, leaving it only three points off the playoffs.
Miami has already beaten Atlanta twice this season, defeating it 2-1 in May before Messi’s arrival, and then 4-0 in the Leagues Cup back in July, which was Messi’s first start and in which he contributed two goals and an assist.
Saturday will be the first trip back to the 404 for Martino, who coached the team for three seasons, leading it to an MLS Cup title in 2018. He departed after that win to take the head-coaching job with the Mexico national side.
As many as 70,000 fans could pack into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to catch a glimpse of Messi on Saturday. The cheapest nosebleed tickets are going for $130 on secondary ticket sites, even with the potential of Messi not starting the game.
Atlanta sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but it has won only two of its past eight games in all competitions and has allowed 43 goals this season, the second-most in the league behind Portland.
The team is led by Thiago Almada, the 22-year-old Argentine midfielder who has been compared to Messi due to his height (5-foot-7) and his technical ability. He leads the league with 11 assists, and he and Messi exchanged jerseys after their Leagues Cup meeting in July.
Atlanta was struggling before the summer transfer deadline but added some key pace on the wings in Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze, who have stepped up in a big way since their arrival, combining for a goal and three assists in four games.
Also on Friday, Miami signed Leonardo Campana to a contract extension through 2027 with an option for 2028.
Information from ESPN’s Ross Devonport contributed to this report.