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Inter Miami defeats Toronto even after Lionel Messi leaves late in first half with leg issue

FORT LAUDERDALE (AP) -- Lionel Messi returned to Inter Miami's lineup on Wednesday night. It was a short-lived comeback, and his team rallied after he departed.

Messi was subbed off in the 37th minute of Inter Miami's match against Toronto, after spending a few minutes laboring with what appeared to be a leg issue. Miami came up big without him, winning 4-0 to move within five points of the final playoff spot in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.

MLS Toronto Inter Miami Soccer
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, right, takes the ball past Toronto FC defender Kobe Franklin during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wilfredo Lee / AP

Robert Taylor, who came on for Messi, had two goals and an assist. But Messi's status overshadowed everything.

"He had an old injury that had been bothering him," Inter Miami coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino said, as relayed through a team official who translated his remarks. "In this case, that he had with the national team."

The 36-year-old Messi had missed two matches — one for club, the other for country — in recent days, after sitting out Argentina's World Cup qualifying win at Bolivia on Sept. 12, and Inter Miami's 5-2 loss at Atlanta United this past Saturday.

Fatigue was cited in both cases, but now it would appear the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner has at least some sort of leg issue. The game was scoreless when Messi was subbed out and he left for the locker room before halftime after spending a few minutes in the bench area.

It was the second big injury blow for Inter Miami on Wednesday. Jordi Alba — another celebrated midseason addition — had to leave in the 34th minute, shortly before Messi's night was over.

"We had to step up," Taylor said.

Facundo Farias and second-half sub Benjamin Cremaschi had the other goals.

"It shows the depth that we have on our team," goalie Drake Callender said.

Messi had a couple of chances Wednesday, and appeared to stop running somewhat abruptly after carrying the ball deep into the Toronto box in the 33rd minute. He was barely engaged after that, leaning forward at one point as if to stretch the back of his legs, then eventually took off his captain's armband — actually trying a long pass while holding the armband — before waiting for play to stop so he could depart.

He didn't even wait to come off the field before unlacing his cleats, lowering his socks and removing his shin guards. He placed the captain's band onto the arm of DeAndre Yedlin — who was Inter Miami's captain before Messi began his stint with the team in July — and now it's anyone's guess when Messi will wear it again.

Martino, per the team's translation, said Messi was removed from the game "to be safe."

"We don't think it's a muscular injury. That's also from a conversation that I just had with him," Martino said via the translation. "But we have to continue being careful and we'll look at him the next few days."

Wednesday's match was the first of what will be six for Inter Miami in a span of 17 days. The team next plays at Orlando on Sunday, then will host Houston in the U.S. Open Cup final on Sept. 27. That will be followed by three more MLS matches in short order: against New York City FC on Sept. 30, at Chicago on Oct. 4 and playing host to Cincinnati on Oct. 7.

The daunting stretch will be even tougher if Messi isn't around. Miami entered Wednesday seven points behind D.C. United for the final playoff spot in the East, with two matches in hand. D.C. United picked up a point by tying Atlanta on Wednesday, so Inter Miami's three points for its win cut the deficit to five.

Despite its place in the standings, Inter Miami now controls its postseason destiny. Win out, and a team that was at the bottom of MLS before Messi arrived will be in the playoffs.

The Atlanta game halted what had been a 12-match unbeaten streak for Inter Miami since Messi debuted for the team against Mexican side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup on July 21. Inter Miami had gone 8-0-4 in those 12 matches, with three of those games that ended as ties being outcomes for the team to celebrate after advancing on penalty kicks — two in the Leagues Cup, including the final against Nashville for the Miami club's first-ever trophy, and another in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.

Messi has now appeared in 12 matches over two months for Miami, most of them in Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup competition. He had 11 goals and eight assists in those appearances, and one goal with two assists in four MLS matches.

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