December 1, 2023

Lionel Messi returned to the starting lineup but couldn’t prevent his first MLS season ending in defeat as Charlotte FC beat Inter Miami 1-0 in front of a crowd of 66,101 at Bank of America Stadium.

Messi was captain and played the full 90 minutes-plus on artificial turf in the meaningless game on Saturday for Miami, which failed to make the playoffs. The game had massive implications, though, for Charlotte. With a win and results elsewhere, the second-year team qualified for the MLS playoffs for the first time.

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Kerwin Vargas scored the game’s only goal in the 13th minute, but Miami came close on numerous occasions to finding an equalizer that would have ended Charlotte’s postseason hopes.

Messi had a free-kick saved onto the post in the 62nd minute and also had a goal ruled out for offside at the start of the second half. Then in a thrilling finale, Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina made multiple standout saves to keep Miami out.

Charlotte finish ninth in the Eastern Conference to claim the final playoff spot and will face a wild-card match against the New York Red Bulls.

Miami, which were 15th and last in the Eastern Conference when Messi and fellow ex-Barcelona stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba arrived in July, finish 14th with 34 points from 34 games. The team was winless in his final six league matches (three losses, three draws) and had four wins, four losses and four draws in the league since Messi joined the team.

Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said his team finished the season wearied by its heavy schedule.

“We had three tournaments and won one,” Martino said through translator. “The team was exhausted. That’s no excuse. That’s the reality.”

Miami and Charlotte also met on Wednesday in a 2-2 draw in Fort Lauderdale. Messi did not play in Wednesday’s game — Miami’s last home game of the MLS season — after scoring both goals for Argentina in its 2-0 World Cup qualifying win at Peru on Tuesday night.

Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s top player, is also 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.

Messi finished with 11 goals in 14 matches with Inter 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 five MLS games, starting three times and scoring one goal.

Messi 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 1-3-3 in seven matches without Messi since he joined the club. He was able to play as a substitute on Oct. 7 against Cincinnati, but Inter Miami lost 1-0 in the outcome that sealed its playoff elimination.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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