Messi scores 12th goal of season as MLS-leading Inter Miami comes back to tie St. Louis

AP , Sunday 2 Jun 2024

Lionel Messi scored his 12th goal of the season in his last Major League Soccer match before the Copa America, and MLS-leading Inter Miami came from behind to tie St. Louis City 3-3 on Saturday night.

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, second from left, celebrates his goal against St. Louis City with defender Jordi Alba (18) and midfielder Sergio Busquets during the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP)

Miami (10-3-5, 35 points) took a two-point lead atop the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of second-place Cincinnati (10-3-3, 33 points), which did not play Saturday.

Luis Suárez also scored his 12th goal for Inter Miami, and Jordi Alba had the tying goal in the 85th minute.

Suárez and Messi are now tied for the team lead in goals, and are one shy of the MLS lead behind Cristian Arango of Real Salt Lake and Christian Benteke of D.C. United, who both have 13. Messi's 12 have come in four fewer games than Arango (16 games) and three fewer than Benteke.

Chris Durkin and former Inter Miami player Indiana Vassilev scored in the first half for St. Louis. Suárez had an own goal in the 69th minute that looked to seal the win for St. Louis until Alba tapped in a goal that was originally called back for offside, but overturned after video review.

Messi dribbled seamlessly through St. Louis defenders in the first half and sent a pass to Alba, who fired it back to Messi for a shot that tied it at 1 early on. It was Alba's second assist of the night.

Messi exited the field to cheers.

“Leo, he played really well today. A very good match,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said through a translator.

Messi will join Argentina next week on a quest to defend the Copa America title it won in 2021, when the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner tearfully lifted his first major trophy for his national team, filling in one of the biggest gaps in his decorated career.

Messi — and potentially Suárez, who could represent Uruguay — could miss at least five Inter Miami matches during the tournament. Copa America runs from June 20 through July 14. And after Copa, Inter Miami could lose players again when national teams call for the Paris Olympics, which run from July 26 to August 11.

The next month without Messi and potentially other stars will be important if Miami hopes to remain atop the standings. Cincinnati missed a chance to take over first place when it lost to Nashville SC on Wednesday, snapping a seven-game win streak that started April 20. Inter Miami plays at Cincinnati on July 6.

Inter Miami is seeking its first postseason berth since 2022 and its second in club history. The club won its first trophy in Messi's first season, with the 36-year-old leading the way to a Leagues Cup championship. They missed the postseason though, as injuries and wear and tear from a packed schedule took a toll late in the season. A leg injury forced Messi to miss much of the team’s late-season MLS slate.

Miami is trying to avoid that happening again. The team has been cautious with the minutes of Messi and his veteran teammates, especially with Messi battling injuries early this season. He, Suárez and Sergio Busquets did not travel with the team on a recent trip to face the Vancouver Whitecaps, drawing the ire of fans eager to see the soccer star play.

“We obviously understand the frustration of the people wanting to watch these players play," Martino said last month. "We as coaches sometimes have to make these very difficult football decisions. But we always have to keep in mind the players’ health first.”

Those three have combined for 3,324 minutes through the first half of the season; Messi with 945 minutes, which is the eighth-most on the team, Busquests with the second-most at 1,313, and Suárez fourth with 1,066.

They played the whole game Saturday.

“They are the players that they are,” Martino said. “You have had a lot of attention (on) them when they arrived. And it’s logical that they’re going to have a big impact on the team.”

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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