Time running out for Messi, Miami to make MLS Cup playoffs

What it's like to swap shirts with Messi (3:01)

MLS players swap stories about their experiences with asking Lionel Messi for his game jersey. (3:01)

Crunch time has arrived in the 2023 Major League Soccer season as the chances to lock down a place in the playoffs grow fewer by the week. For Argentina superstar Lionel Messi and Inter Miami, it is truly last-chance saloon.

Following a 1-1 draw at Orlando City on Sunday, Messi & Co. find themselves five points and five places behind New York City FC for the ninth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Not ideal.

Fortunately for the Herons, they have two games in hand, so there is ample opportunity to springboard up the standings. Using the typical 43-point plateau that has historically served as the MLS playoff cut line, Inter Miami needs to take 12 points from the team's final five matches to squeeze into the playoffs.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

Here is where things get complicated for Inter Miami: With Messi and star full-back Jordi Alba not even on the bench for Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final loss against Houston, the former Barcelona teammates' availability for the most important part of the regular season is now in question. Miami isn't quite the same team without Messi; in the 10 games before Messi arrived this summer, Miami lost six and won only one, but after his arrival Miami went on a 10-game unbeaten streak, winning six.

With details about Messi's fitness so murky, it's impossible to gauge when he might be available again, if at all, this season. If Miami makes the playoffs, it certainly seems to raise the chances of seeing Messi again.

First things first, though: Inter Miami has to win four games to even have the conversation of a possible Messi return for the playoffs. That will be easier said than done.

Miami's final MLS playoff push begins this Saturday with a home date against the aforementioned NYCFC. It hasn't been the easiest season in Gotham, but NYCFC has managed to find one of its best runs of form of the entire season at the right time, taking 10 points in the past five matches and conceding just one goal in that span.

Simply put, Inter Miami cannot afford to drop points on Saturday because the margin for error is so thin. The remainder of the schedule suggests as much.

After NYCFC, Inter Miami goes up against a Chicago Fire side that hasn't won since before Leagues Cup, so logic dictates that three points are very attainable there.

But it is three days later, Oct. 7, that dictates this entire playoff-seeking exercise for Inter Miami. That's when Supporters' Shield leader FC Cincinnati comes to town, and no question that Cincy's players would love nothing more than to avenge their U.S. Open Cup semifinal penalty shootout defeat with a resounding win in Fort Lauderdale, possibly even winning the Supporters' Shield in the process.

Basically, if Miami head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino wanted to go full NBA and "schedule a loss" for the sake of rest, this is the one to do it. To reach the 43-point threshold, though, this would be the only loss Miami could afford.

What then follows are Miami's final two games of the season, and in a curious twist, they will be a pair of meetings with Charlotte FC, a team that only joined MLS last year, missing the playoffs.

Adding uncertainty is that the first match against Charlotte takes place in Florida on Oct. 18, just one day after Argentina is scheduled to be in Lima to play Peru in a CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier. Messi's availability for anything, whether Inter Miami or Albiceleste, is unknown, but his inkling is to always be with his national team, no matter what.

That will have to be hashed out by Messi, Martino and Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni, but from the Inter Miami perspective, those are three points that have to be pocketed. Doing it without Messi would be all the more difficult, but if the loss in Cincinnati transpires, this Charlotte game is a must-win.

Finally, MLS Decision Day will arrive three days later on Oct. 21 to close out the regular season, and if Inter Miami had gotten the necessary results and Messi's health is good, it just might be the first time Messi gets a taste of an MLS specialty: flying black pellets on an artificial turf field.

The second date with Charlotte will be away at Bank of America Stadium, fake grass and all. For a Miami team that has been battling fatigue in recent weeks and its star not at 100%, this will be a test of mettle to come away with a full three points. That is all assuming Inter Miami can even get to the final day of the regular season with a chance at reaching the playoffs, of course.

There is a lot of work to do, beginning on Saturday against NYCFC. With Messi's injury quandary, fatigue settling into the team, an upcoming schedule with a behemoth like FC Cincinnati and the curveball of the international window, the journey north of the 43-point playoff line leaves almost no room for error.