Lionel Messi watched from the sidelines as Inter Miami CF lost 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup final after he was not named in the squad due to an injury picked up while on Argentina duty.
Manager Gerardo Martino said Tuesday that whether his star player was available or not would come down to a game-time decision. When the lineup was revealed ahead of the final at DRV PNK Stadium, Messi was not listed on the team sheet.
"It was clearly not prudent for him to play, not even for a few minutes," Martino said after the match. "We couldn't take the risk.
"But he will surely play again before the end of the season. His participation will be determined game by game based on the medical team's feedback."
Messi's former Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba also sat out the loss as he dealt with an injury of his own, with both players spotted in the stands in street clothes shortly after kickoff.
With two of their stars missing, Miami were overmatched and Houston took full advantage, scoring twice in the first half from Griffin Dorsey's close-range thunderbolt and a penalty by Amine Bassi as the visitors controlled the game.
Miami, who were making a second bid for a trophy this season after winning the inaugural Leagues Cup tournament between MLS and Liga MX, tried to force their way back into the game but lacked the finishing touch and could only muster a late consolation goal from Josef Martinez.
When the final whistle blew, it was Houston that added a second U.S. Open Cup to their trophy case after winning it in 2018.
"Today, I saw a worn-out and tired team," Martino said. "We were also limited by the injuries, so our performance was affected by those circumstances."
Thousands of fans turned up in the Fort Lauderdale area late Wednesday afternoon -- many of them wearing Messi jerseys either in the blue and white of Argentina or the pink of Inter Miami -- long before the gates opened for the Cup final, if for no other reason than to watch the team buses arrive.
However, when the buses arrived there was no Messi, a reality that might have led to an expensive disappointment for some fans. Ticket prices on secondary markets, with links to sales posted on the team's social media channels as recently as Tuesday, ranged from $145 to nearly $4,000 about an hour before the match.
Messi had been in and out of Miami's lineup since returning from international duty for Argentina with a leg injury related to an old scar tissue problem. He did not play in a loss to Atlanta United on Sept. 16 and tried to play Sept. 20 against Toronto FC but was withdrawn after about 30 minutes in a game Miami went on to win 4-0.
Alba was substituted with muscle fatigue in the Toronto game shortly before Messi, and after the match Martino said neither would play in Saturday's game away to Orlando City. Miami managed a draw in that match to keep their MLS Cup playoff hopes alive.
Messi's impact on Miami since arriving in July in a blockbuster deal has been remarkable. He's scored 11 goals and contributed to a total of 16, with the team having never lost a game in which he played.
Miami are five points behind New York City FC, which they face Saturday in MLS, in the standings for the final playoff spot with five games to play and two games in hand.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.