Inter Miami keeps playoff hopes alive while testing fan loyalty amid Lionel Messi injury saga

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami CF watches from the stands in the second half against the New York City FC at DRV PNK Stadium on September 30, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Kamal Miller sat glued to rain-soaked grass as unfulfilled fans scurried off into the South Florida night.

Many had paid handsome sums to see Lionel Messi. When Messi arrived at DRV PNK Stadium sporting a T-shirt and a mysterious injury, they repurposed their cravings. They wanted, at the very least, to witness an Inter Miami victory. On a long, wet Saturday evening, they didn’t — and that’s why Miller, a Miami defender, sank to the turf, digesting a 1-1 draw with New York City FC.

“Just felt like we had really let them down,” Miller later said.

But they, fans and players alike, also fought. They fought through a weather delay and a sudden gloom engulfing the club. They fought through fatigue and frustration, through uncertainty surrounding Messi, back from a 1-0 deficit to earn a point. They nearly stole all three.

So they kept their playoff hopes on life support. Thanks to Tomás Avilés’ 95th-minute header, they are four points back with four games to go.

And perhaps more importantly, after 90 sluggish minutes, their stoppage-time fightback staved off a malaise that had abruptly overtaken Messi Mania. Two months of giddy, incessant excitement began to turn sour this past week. And Inter Miami now faces an uphill battle to salvage more positivity from its wild season.

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‘They priced me out’

At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, as Messi hopped out of a black Escalade and hustled through a downpour, Alex Guzman leaned against a table outside Section 117 and vented.

Guzman is something of a South Florida soccer lifer, a patron of professional teams here dating back to the old Fort Lauderdale Strikers. He followed the North American Soccer League until its mid-1980s demise, then celebrated its rebirth this century. He attended the final game at Lockhart Stadium, former home of the now-defunct Strikers. He attended the first game at Inter Miami’s Lockhart replacement, and has hardly missed an Inter home game since.

Which means he sat through three “horrific” seasons, through losses and front-office mayhem. He sat through dreadful games, often with very few fans by his side. Inter Miami ranked last in MLS in attendance in 2022. It ranked last in points, on the field, midway through 2023. “At the beginning of…

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