Atlanta hands Miami first MLS loss with Messi

Lionel Messi of Inter Miami
Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami competes for the ball against Tristan Muyumba #8 of Atlanta United during the first half at Chase Stadium on May 29, 2024 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Lionel Messi scored yet again, but it was the lone highlight for Inter Miami CF, as its 10-match Major League Soccer unbeaten run was ended by an Atlanta United side that got its first league win in nearly two months.

Saba Lobjanidze scored once in each half, Jamal Thiare helped put the game away with a goal in the 73rd minute and Atlanta United snapped a nine-match MLS winless streak with a 3-1 victory on Wednesday night.

Atlanta was 0-5-4 in MLS play since beating Chicago 3-0 on March 31. But it never trailed on Wednesday, with Lobjanidze scoring late in the first half to put his side on top and adding the second in the 59th minute. After Messi's goal, Atlanta kept all 10 field players in the defensive end whenever the hosts had deep possession in the final 30 minutes.

"The first sensation is that Atlanta United played with more urgency, and that we needed more," Miami manager Gerardo Martino said after the match. "That showed throughout the first half. But it's not a game where I need to do an analysis of what went wrong, because what happened was a bit of everything. It was a night where the team receded, whereas in other games we find positive moments in the challenges. Like last game in the second half where we had to defend, but this time we couldn't connect.

"The conditions were favorable, much more for us than them. But as we talked yesterday, their position on the table is deceiving, and they showed that today."

Messi got his 11th goal of the MLS season, tying Luis Suárez for the team lead. Inter Miami (10-3-4, 34 points) kept a one-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and the overall MLS standings over Cincinnati (10-3-3, 33 points). Cincinnati lost to Nashville on Wednesday night, missing a chance to take the top spot.

Inter Miami entered Wednesday with a 7-0-3 mark in its past 10 MLS matches. It is now 10-0-4 when allowing two goals or fewer in MLS play this season -- and 0-3-0 when surrendering three goals or more.

So, Wednesday was a dud. The first half of the season, though, has gone largely to plan.

With 34 points through exactly half the MLS schedule -- matching its total from all of the 2023 season, when Messi joined around the midway point and helped the team win Leagues Cup but couldn't get it into the playoffs -- Inter Miami is on pace for 68 points.

But realistically, maybe not so much.

The plan, for now, calls for Messi to get at least some minutes when Miami hosts St. Louis on Saturday. After that, Messi will be trading Inter Miami's pink kit for the blue of Argentina, playing for country instead of club for a bit.

Copa América -- the 16-team tournament that runs from June 20 through July 14 -- is looming, with Messi set to play for defending champion Argentina and Suarez a possibility to play for Uruguay.

Asked if he thought Messi was saving himself for the Copa América, Martino, who coached Atlanta to the MLS Cup title in 2018, said: "No, I will not speculate if Messi is saving himself for Copa America because [that question has] no validity."

The former Barcelona teammates might miss MLS matches when Miami plays at Philadelphia (June 15), vs. Columbus (June 19), at Nashville (June 29), at Charlotte (July 3) and at Cincinnati (July 6). Following the Copa América final, Miami also has home matches against Toronto (July 17) and Chicago (July 20).

Unlike most leagues, MLS schedules games during some FIFA fixture periods, when release of players to national teams is mandatory. And after Copa, it would seem likely that Miami might lose some players again when national teams call for the Paris Olympics.

Messi had some opportunities in the early going, including a diving header about four minutes into the match off a chip into the middle of the box by Jordi Alba. Messi, fending off some contact, sent the ball into the turf and the carom spun over the crossbar; he gave Alba a thumbs-up for the idea as he picked himself up from the grass with a smile.

"For me, it was a game where we had to find alternatives to attack and so we couldn't justify bringing in midfielders or midfielders with defensive characteristics like Benjamin Cremaschi," Martino said. "We are a team that needs the ball to attack and win. We can recede with two lines of four, but when we break into more offensive options with five at the front we give the rival more of a chance to win than ourselves."

And in the 21st minute, Messi sent a chip toward the left post, just over a leaping Robert Taylor, who would have had plenty of net to aim for had he been able to attempt the header.

His goal in the 63rd minute was a typical Messi masterpiece, threading a ball between two defenders and just inside the right post, barely out of the reach of a diving Atlanta goalie Josh Cohen.

When you think must-see events in 2024, what comes to mind? There's high demand for NFL tickets and the seismic draw of international pop singer Taylor Swift, to name just two, but equally hyped this year has been the chance to see a 5-foot-7 Argentine soccer player called Lionel Messi play soccer around the USA. And he's covering a lot of ground to make sure of it.

Swift's Eras Tour last year smashed several records -- including being the highest-grossing tour of all time -- and logs 23 different countries on five continents (total: 65,069 miles) over nearly 20 months. The Chiefs played 23 games (including preseason and postseason), including a date with the Miami Dolphins in Frankfurt, Germany, on their way to another Super Bowl title, racking up over 28,000 miles along the way. However, when it comes to travel, Messi is simply built different.

In his first full year of a 2½-year contract with David Beckham's Inter Miami of Major League Soccer, the 36-year-old Argentine is in a unique economic and logistical predicament. Soccer players in Europe face a lot of travel -- especially if they play for teams that are competing in UEFA club competitions -- but Messi's schedule is next-level ridiculous. 

Not only is he playing across North America for his club -- MLS runs on a March to November schedule unlike in Europe, where Messi used to play, which would run from August to May and allow a little rest in the summer -- but he will also play in the Copa América for his national team, which is also being hosted in the United States.

The layering of major domestic travel -- Miami is in the extreme southeastern U.S., making it a long trip to most of its road games -- with his Argentina duties makes for a dizzying schedule as Messi looks to defend the Albicelestes' continental crown that they won in 2021.

Tickets to see Messi in the hot pink of Inter Miami on the road (up to $1,000 a ticket) or the sky blue and white of Argentina (Copa América group stage tickets average in the $300 range) have reached exorbitant prices. It's not without controversy, either: Messi has already missed a few games for club and country in 2024 due to injuries or rest -- the latter saw the Vancouver Whitecaps issue a statement before the game, causing disappointment for fans who spent more than 250 Canadian dollars ($180) to watch his magic up close.

Messi's not alone in having a grueling calendar: The likes of Jude Bellingham (England) and Vinícius Júnior (Brazil) will play on Saturday for Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund before jetting off to join their national teams and prepare for more high-level competitive soccer this summer (Euros in Germany and Copa América in the United States). The Euro and Copa finals are both July 14; should either of their teams make it that far, they will receive only a brief respite before their club, Real Madrid, begins its preseason tour of the U.S. on July 31.

With changes coming to both the UEFA Champions League -- which begins its expanded Swiss model format, with 36 teams instead of 32, in 2024-25 -- and the 2026 World Cup growing from 32 teams to 48, we might well see wilder schedules for elite players in the future, too.

With Argentina the favorite to retain their Copa América trophy in the United States as well as Inter Miami becoming the favorite to win MLS Cup with their star-studded team, Messi will rack up a lot of frequent flier miles. Let's look at just how exhausting this year could be for the GOAT.


Before the start of the MLS season, Inter Miami embarked on a preseason tour that nearly matched the circumference of the earth. They began their seven-game, 23,698-mile odyssey in El Salvador to play its national team before traveling back to the United States and then to Asia, making stops in Saudi Arabia -- though no reunion with Cristiano Ronaldo -- Hong Kong and Japan. Then they returned to Florida for their final warm-up game against Messi's boyhood club, Newell's Old Boys.

Not only was this tour controversial for its scale -- with Miami looking to cash in on the global marketability of its superstar, who has been joined by former Barca teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suárez -- but also for the first instance of Messi failing to appear. Fans in Hong Kong called for a refund after Messi sat out Feb. 4 because of an injury. It caused outrage -- average ticket prices were 4,880 Hong Kong dollars ($624) for a game in which he didn't feature -- and prompted even the Government of Hong Kong to express disappointment toward Messi's absence.

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