Messi signs off for Copa with goal in 3-3 thriller

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Messi scored his 12th goal of the season in his last Major League Soccer match before the Copa America, and MLS-leading Inter Miami CF came from behind to tie St. Louis City 3-3 on Saturday night.

Miami (10-3-5, 35 points) took a two-point lead atop the Eastern Conference standings and in MLS overall, ahead of second-place Cincinnati (10-3-3, 33 points), which did not play Saturday.

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Luis Suárez also scored his 12th goal for Inter Miami, and Jordi Alba had the tying goal in the 85th minute.

Messi will join Argentina next week on a quest to defend the Copa America title it won in 2021, when the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner tearfully lifted his first major trophy for his national team, filling in one of the biggest gaps in his decorated career.

“Knowing the player that he is for us, it’s hard, but the team will continue to compete as much as possible, and that will be noticed,” Alba said of Messi’s departure. “It’s an important absence for us, but we hope he does well in Copa America, we hope he has a great tournament and joins us again when it’s time. If that’s after the final, well — but in the meantime, the team will continue to fight and play.

“Tonight, the team competed, and we left our hearts out there. We suffered, but in the end, we got a point. The team continues to lead in the East, and that’s important.”

Suárez and Messi are now tied for the team lead in goals and are one shy of the MLS lead behind Cristian Arango of Real Salt Lake and Christian Benteke of D.C. United, who both have 13. Messi’s 12 have come in four fewer games than Arango (16 games) and three fewer than Benteke.

Chris Durkin and former Inter Miami player Indiana Vassilev scored in the first half for St. Louis. Suárez had an own goal in the 69th minute that looked to seal the win for St. Louis, until Alba tapped in a goal that was originally called back for offside but overturned after video review.

Messi dribbled seamlessly through St. Louis defenders in the first half and sent a pass to Alba, who fired it back to Messi for a shot that tied it at 1 early on.

Messi exited the field to cheers.

Messi — and potentially Suárez, who could represent Uruguay — could miss at least five Inter Miami matches during the tournament. Copa America runs from June 20 through July 14. And after Copa, Inter Miami could lose players again when national teams call for the Paris Olympics, which run from July 26 to Aug. 11.

“In today’s game, Leo was practically responsible next to Jordi for the participation of the attack,” Miami coach Gerardo Martino said. “He was involved in the definition of strikes, he insisted throughout the game. He finished the game well — and now will do what has corresponded to him his whole life, which is play for Argentina.”

The next month without Messi and potentially other stars will be important if Miami hopes to remain atop the standings.

Cincinnati missed a chance to take over first place when it lost to Nashville SC on Wednesday, snapping a seven-game win streak that started April 20. Inter Miami will play at Cincinnati on July 6.

Miami has won once, lost and drawn in its past three games, but Martino said the results were acceptable given the circumstances.

“Today’s game there is a positive part, which is coming back from a negative result on three occasions,” Martino said. “We also overcame the rival in the final three minutes, where we could’ve and should’ve won the game. I’ve been insisting and talking to the players about our errors, especially when losing the ball, that are very harmful for us.

“This week, we won against Vancouver in a game that ended up being acceptable by today’s standards with great individual performances, and Wednesday [during a loss to Atlanta] was a bad game. The four out of nine points weren’t what we expected. But still recuperating today in the 90 minutes; we leave with a calm sensation.”

Inter Miami is seeking its first postseason berth since 2022 and its second in club history. The club won its first trophy in Messi’s first season, with the 36-year-old leading the way to a Leagues Cup championship. It missed the postseason though, as injuries and wear and tear from a packed schedule took a toll late last season. A leg injury forced Messi to miss much of the team’s late-season MLS slate.

Miami is trying to avoid that happening again. The team has been cautious with the minutes of Messi and his veteran teammates, especially with Messi battling injuries early this season. He, Suárez and Sergio Busquets did not travel with the team on a recent trip to face the Whitecaps, drawing the ire of Vancouver fans eager to see Messi play.

Those three have combined for 3,324 minutes through the first half of the season; Messi with 945 minutes, which is the eighth most on the team, Busquets with the second most at 1,313 and Suárez fourth with 1,066.

They played the whole game Saturday.

ESPN writer Lizzy Becherano contributed to this story. Information from The Associated Press was also used.

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