FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla, -- After missing five of the past six games with a hamstring injury, Lionel Messi returned to action Saturday, playing 35 minutes off the bench in a 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati that eliminated Inter Miami from MLS postseason contention.
Messi's only real contributions came when he sailed two free kicks -- one in the the 58th minute, the other in stoppage time -- well over Cincinnati goalkeeper Roman Celentano's crossbar.
"His injury is healed, but his rhythm was just off. He hasn't played much, that's why I only played him 35 minutes," said coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
The 36-year-old Argentine legend -- who played more centrally in this game than he had in previous outings for Inter Miami -- had managed just 37 minutes in one appearance over the past six games coming into Saturday, with Miami winning just once while Messi was absent.
It was while on international duty that Messi picked up the injury that ultimately proved fatal to Miami's playoff hopes.
He will miss Miami's next game on Oct.18, a rescheduled contest with Charlotte FC, but could be back in the squad for the rematch in North Carolina three days later on the final day of the regular season.
However, with Miami now playing for nothing more than pride, and Messi's health at less-than-ideal levels, it's questionable whether Messi will dress in pink again this season.
Martino said he won't let the final two contests go to waste, however.
"It is very important the assessment we can do in these remaining games to make the best decisions for next year," he said.
Messi has 11 goals in 13 matches with Inter Miami. It is 8-1-4 when he plays; seven of those matches were on the team's run to winning its first trophy by claiming the Leagues Cup, and another was in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. Inter Miami is 1-3-2 in its six matches without Messi since he joined the club.
Saturday's loss, along with wins by several teams above Miami in the table, left the South Florida side seven points adrift of the final playoff spot with only two games remaining.
"I'm satisfied with that we've done," said Martino, who was upbeat in the postgame news conference despite his team being eliminated.
"I always thought from the moment I took over the team that these six months were going to be about giving the team some shape, getting it ready for 2024.
"We were able to win a title, something 26 of 28 teams won't do this season, and we had the chance to make the playoffs, which three months ago was impossible to think of, so I'm happy with the way we competed."
In a matchup with the league's best team and already-crowned Supporters' Shield winners at a rainy DRV PNK Stadium, Miami hit the woodwork three times in the first 24 minutes of an entertaining first half. Goalkeeper Drake Callender made several superb saves throughout the game to keep his side in the contest.
In an unusual move, Messi did not join the rest of his teammates in the 18-man squad for pregame warm-ups. Instead, he emerged from the tunnel and took his seat on the bench just before the start of the national anthem.
He also did not warm up with the rest of the Miami substitutes toward the end of the first half or at halftime, but did finally get off his seat in the opening moments of the second half to get limber in front of a subdued La Familia supporters' group section.
Miami's most fervent supporters mostly kept their word regarding their planned protest of the higher 2024 season ticket renewal prices.
After initially saying they would boycott the match completely, they agreed to attend the game following a meeting with the team, but without flags or instruments.
They didn't quite manage to stick completely to their word, with a couple of flags waving and drums banged intermittently during 90 minutes that saw Miami's memorable season end on a damp note.