FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Another Toronto FC defeat. But this time the loss takes a back seat to Lionel Messi's health.
The 36-year-old Argentine star exited in the 37th minute Wednesday, two minutes after Spanish fullback Jordi Alba was forced to leave. But Inter Miami CF had more than enough firepower in reserve to thump Toronto 4-0 in MLS play.
Miami coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino downplayed Messi's early departure.
"He had an old injury that had been bothering him," the Argentine coach said though an interpreter. "And the scans that he had with the national team didn't show any muscle injury. So we saved him to be safe. We don't think it's a muscular injury. That's also from a conversation that I just had with him. But we have to continue being careful and we'll look at it in the next few days."
According to Opta, it was only the eighth time in 937 career starts in his senior career that Messi had been substituted before halftime — and the first since October 2018.
The 34-year Alba also was not suffering anything serious, according to Martino, whose team has a busy schedule ahead, including the Sept. 27 U.S. Open Cup final against the Houston Dynamo.
Robert Taylor, who replaced Messi, scored twice while Facundo Farías and Benjamin Cremaschi added singles for Miami (9-15-4), which has lost just once in its last 14 matches in all competitions. In contrast, Toronto (4-15-10) has won just one of its last 16 outings in all competitions.
Miami had 60.5 per cent of possession and outshot Toronto 13-8 (5-2 in shots on target).
Injuries reduced the star power at DRV Pink Stadium, with each team having to make two enforced changes in the first half.
Messi and Alba had been question-marks to start after being sidelined by what was described as muscle fatigue. But the pair made the starting 11 along with veteran Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets and Canadian Kamal Miller, who has been ever-present in the Miami backline since arriving from CF Montreal in an April trade.
Another Argentine opened the scoring in first-half stoppage time with the 21-year-old Farías volleying the ball home after a weak clearance by goalkeeper Tomas Romero of a Noah Allen cross. It was Farias' third goal in six career MLS games.
Taylor made it 2-1 in the 54th minute after outpacing the TFC defence to make room for a low, angled shot from the edge of the penalty box. It was the Finnish international midfielder's third goal of the season.
Cremaschi added to the lead in the 73rd minute, beating Romero to cap a counterattack. It was the second goal of his MLS career for the 18-year-old American rookie who had entered the game eight minutes earlier.
Taylor rubbed salt in the wound, roofing a shot in the 87th minute after a Farias feed unlocked the Toronto defence.
Toronto is now winless in its last 18 road games (0-14-4) in all competitions, failing to score in the last five away matches and 12 of 18 games during that run.
Its last away victory was Aug. 27, 2022, when it beat Charlotte FC 2-0.
Miami was coming off a 5-2 weekend loss in Atlanta that snapped a 12-game unbeaten run in all competitions. Messi sat out that game and the one before, a 3-2 victory over Sporting Kansas City, last seeing action Sept. 3.
Messi was essentially a bystander in the early going Wednesday before showing flashes of the threat he poses.
He sprang into action in the 18th minute, accelerating through space and firing a shot directly at Romero. Three minutes later, he danced through several defenders in the Toronto penalty box only to see his shot blocked by Raoul Petretta.
In the 23rd minute, Messi's attempted volley of a cross from Farías was off-target.
Perhaps with an eye to the occasion, interim Toronto coach Terry Dunfield gave veteran midfielder Victor Vazquez his first start since March 25. The 36-year-old Spaniard, who had seen a total of 53 minutes playing time in four substitute appearances since returning from a 4 1/2-month injury absence, rose through the ranks with Messi at FC Barcelona's famed youth academy.
They were both members of the Class of ’87 youth side — named after the birth year of the players involved — along with Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. The under-15 side was a force to be reckoned with in the 2002-03 season.
Vazquez lasted just 11 minutes, heading directly to the locker room with Brandon Servania replacing him. Servania had to be helped off in the 25th minute after seemingly having his left leg caught awkwardly in a challenge with David Ruiz.
Dunfield would only say after the game that the two were dealing with lower body injuries.
Messi came into Wednesday's game with 11 goals and eight assists in 11 outings for Miami, eight of which were in cup play. Miami was unbeaten in those 11 games, winning 10 (with three of those victories coming by penalty shootout) with one tie.
It was a stop-and-start first half Wednesday with injury substitutions and Miami's Ukrainian defender Serhiy Kryvtsov needing repairs and a new jersey after a clash of heads near halftime.
Toronto had two glorious chances in the first half.
The first was in the 13th minute with Deandre Kerr getting back-to-back chances after stealing the ball and beating a defender. Miami 'keeper Drake Callender made the first save and Kerr's shot off the rebound hit the goalpost.
Toronto had another good chance later in the half after an errant Miller pass but Jonathan Osorio was unable to find Kerr in front of goal.
"We need to take a chance when they come our way," said Dunfield.
"We struggle to take a punch," he added. "When we concede, it's really hard for us to move on to the next play at the moment. If we can figure that out, then maybe we're not watching these tough finishes to games."
Federico Bernardeschi thought he scored for Toronto in the 47th minute but the goal was called off for offside. Fellow Italian Lorenzo Insigne hit the goalpost in the 83rd minute.
Messi has already led Miami to the Leagues Cup. The MLS playoffs may be a bridge too far, however, with Miami seven points and five places out of the ninth and last post-season berth going into Wednesday's game.
Miami has six league games remaining.
Before sitting out the last two contests, Messi had played in 11 games in 45 days since joining Miami in July and travelled to Argentina and Bolivia with the national team earlier this month.
Toronto, which lost 2-1 to the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps on the weekend, plays Saturday at New York City FC. Miami visits Florida rival Orlando City on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023
The Canadian Press