It remains to be seen if Lionel Messi will be healthy enough to participate in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final against the Houston Dynamo, with Inter Miami coach Tata Martino confirming Tuesday that the GOAT will be a game time decision.

“We’ll wait until the last minute,” Martino said. “We’re hoping for the best because the final is very important.”

Messi missed Sunday’s 1-1 tie in Orlando with muscle fatigue. But Wednesday’s match represents the opportunity to win his record 44th trophy all time and a second since joining MLS in July. Miami’s training staff is doing all it can to get him on the field. 

Whether Messi plays, though, his much-celebrated stateside arrival — which came on the heels of his storybook 2022 World Cup triumph with Argentina — has exceeded any reasonable expectation so far. That won’t change if Messi can’t will Inter to another title this week. It won’t even if Inter fails to make the MLS playoffs this fall.

It’s hard’s to overstate the impact, in just over two months, Messi has made on the league, his club, and soccer in North America overall. 

With 11 goals — several of the truly spectacular variety — in 12 games, his performances have been more dominant than anyone could’ve hoped for. Overnight he, along with former Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, turned the worst team in MLS one that still hasn’t lost any of the dozen games he’s appeared in. Last month Miami claimed the Leagues Cup, a competition that included not just all 29 MLS teams, but 18 from Mexico’s top division, too. Messi’s steady stream of highlights with Miami have thrilled both causal American sports fans and soccer diehards from across the globe.  

None of that was guaranteed, or even particularly likely. 

While he was always going to be a hot ticket, there were legitimate doubts about how quickly Messi would adapt to MLS: the cross continental travel, the suffocating South Florida humidity, the inconsistent officiating, working with less talented teammates — all were things he’d never before experienced during almost two decades spent in Europe at the highest level. 

For mere mortals, that culture shock can be a killer. Countless other big names have struggled to adapt quickly after ditching the old world for MLS. Just look at the mess in Toronto, where Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne have been a disaster despite arriving with glittering resumes that include the European title they won together for Italy two summers ago. 

It wasn’t until his third year with the LA Galaxy that David Beckham, now one of Inter’s co-owners, was on a competitive squad in MLS, a league whose rules are designed to ensure parity between its teams. 

[If he plays, Lionel Messi’s brilliance makes this year’s U.S. Open Cup a must-see event]

Messi hasn’t been fazed by any of that. Instead of getting frustrated with less skilled teammates his own otherworldly play has raised their collective level. The only thing that has been able to slow Messi is his 36-year-old body after the toll of 13 games in seven weeks, including the 2026 World Cup qualifier for the Albiceleste on Sept. 8 in which he scored before limping off the field in the second half. 

Even if it’s as a substitute, Busquets is hoping Messi can contribute against the Dynamo.

“When you don’t have the best player in the world,” Busquets said Tuesday, “it makes a significant difference.” 

How do you think Lionel Messi changes the brand of MLS? | SOTU

How do you think Lionel Messi changes the brand of MLS? | SOTU

Even if he makes a cameo Wednesday, Martino admitted that Messi might not feature in all the Herons’ final five regular-season games. Miami is only willing to gamble on Messi’s body this week because of what’s at stake.

“It’s a final – we’re talking about 90 minutes, 120 minutes that separate us from a new title,” Martino said. “If it were any other type of match, I don’t think we’d be running that type of risk.” 

That doesn’t bode well for Miami’s postseason chances. But then the dreadful first half of the season makes it doubtful they’ll qualify even with Messi fully fit. He’s the main reason they’re even still in the hunt. 

Failure to make it would mean just a few more weeks of stateside Messi Mania this year. Big picture, it could be a good thing. 

Following a legacy-defining 10 months, Messi will finally get an extended rest whenever his MLS season ends.  It could be the longest break he’s had as a professional; the 2024 slate won’t kick off until February, meaning Messi will have time to further settle into his new city and rehab any lingering injuries. He and his teammates will get a full preseason together to prepare for the new campaign, one in which they can realistically aspire to MLS Cup even if they can’t add another star, such as Messi’s close friend Luis Suárez. 

Martino won MLS’s most coveted trophy in his second year in Atlanta. With a fit, motivated Messi leading the way, who’d bet against them in Year 2, when Messi could be even better? That must be a terrifying thought for opposing defenses, especially after a Year 1 that can already be considered a smashing success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Bigger issue: Lionel Messi not playing OR his pizza order? | SOTU

Bigger issue: Lionel Messi not playing OR his pizza order? | SOTU

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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