Lionel Messi’s MLS season ends with Miami loss to Charlotte

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Lionel Messi returned to the starting lineup but couldn’t prevent his first MLS season from 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 the captain and played the full 90 minutes-plus on artificial turf in Saturday’s meaningless game for Miami, which failed to make the playoffs. The game had wider implications for Charlotte, though. With the win and result 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 at times to find an equalizer that ended Charlotte’s postseason hopes.

A Messi free kick was saved at the post in the 62nd minute and a goal was ruled out for offside early in the second half. Then in a thrilling finale, Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina made several standout saves to keep Miami at bay.

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

Miami, which was 15th and last in the Eastern Conference when Messi and fellow former Barcelona stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba arrived in July, finished 14th with 34 points from 34 games. The team is winless in its last six league matches (three losses, three draws) and has 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 tired due to its heavy schedule.

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

Miami and Charlotte met in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Wednesday to a 2-2 draw. Messi did not play Wednesday’s game — Miami’s final home game of the MLS season — after scoring both goals for Argentina in Tuesday night’s 2-0 World Cup qualifier away to Peru.

Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s best player, is expected to play for Inter Miami in November. 5 and November. 8, when the team played two exhibition matches in China. This will be the first time Inter Miami will travel abroad. Argentina then have more World Cup qualifiers in November. 16 and November 21 — after which Messi should get an extended break before starting preparations for Inter Miami 2024.

Messi finished the season with 11 goals in 14 games for Inter Miami. The team went 8-2-4 in that game; In those matches, seven teams claimed the League Cup championship and were in the running to win the trophy for the first time. He also appeared in five MLS games, starting three times and scoring one goal.

Messi played in a US Open Cup semifinal, but a foot injury derailed his season and essentially ended Inter Miami’s chances of playing in the postseason. Miami is now 1-3-3 in seven games without Messi since joining the club. He was able to play as a substitute in October. 7 against Cincinnati, but Inter Miami lost 1-0 in a result that eliminated its playoffs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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