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Messi plays entire game for Inter Miami in loss as Charlotte qualifies for the MLS playoffs

Lionel Messi Inter Miami Lionel Messi - The Canadian Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Lionel Messi played the entire game on artificial turf in Inter Miami’s season finale on Saturday night, and Charlotte FC qualified for the MLS playoffs with a 1-0 victory.

Messi shared the spotlight with Charlotte's bid to qualify for the postseason on the last day of the regular season in a game that drew 66,101 at Charlotte's 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.

Messi, who led Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title, was the clear drawing card, and thousands in attendance were adorned in “Messi 10” jerseys.

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s top player went the distance in the meaningless game for Miami, which had already been eliminated from playoff contention. He finished with three shots and had two scoring chances. Messi's apparent goal in the 49th minute was negated by an offside call, and his shot in the 62nd minute bounded off the crossbar.

Messi had 11 goals in 14 matches with Miami this season. The team was winless in his final six league matches (three losses, three draws) and had four wins, four losses and four draws in the league since he joined the team in mid-July.

Messi, who scored twice for Argentina in its 2-0 World Cup qualifying win at Peru on Tuesday night and did not play the next day in a makeup game against Charlotte, did not address the media after the game. He had one media availability in a half-season with team, on Aug. 17.

Charlotte delivered for its fans. The second-year franchise needed a victory over Miami and help from other results to claim one of the two remaining Eastern Conference playoff spots in a scramble of five teams. The Chicago Fire and CF Montreal lost earlier Saturday and that allowed Charlotte to clinch a playoff berth with a victory.

Kerwin Vargas’ goal in the 13th minute was enough to seal the historic victory, and Charlotte held Miami without a goal down the stretch in a season in which it has yielded many late-game goals.

Charlotte will finish the 2023 season second in league attendance; Charlotte FC was averaging 33,634 entering Saturday’s regular- season finale.

“I knew it was because Messi was in town,” Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio said of the large crowd. "The more they come to see us they will see we can play toe-to-toe with the best in the world.

“I'm very, very proud of the boys. They have been working very, very hard.”

Messi is expected to play in Inter Miami’s colors on Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, when the team plays two exhibition matches in China. It’ll be the first time Inter Miami goes on a foreign tour. Argentina then has more World Cup qualifiers on Nov. 16 and Nov. 21 — after which Messi should get an extended break before Inter Miami begins preparing for 2024.

Inter Miami CF coach Gerardo Martino said his team finished the season wearied by its heavy schedule.

“We had three tournaments and won one,” Martino said through translator. “The team was exhausted. That's no excuse. That's the reality.”