D.C. United prepares for two different versions of Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami

d.c. united prepares for two different versions of lionel messi’s inter miami

D.C. United prepares for two different versions of Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami

Lionel Messi trained the past two days, which suggests D.C. United probably is going to tangle with Inter Miami’s megastar at some point Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Maybe.

“I really don’t know the answer,” United Coach Troy Lesesne said Friday before the team charter headed south.

United went through this will-he-or-won’t-he situation two months ago, when Messi’s hamstring injury cast doubt — and ultimately sidelined him — for his only scheduled visit to Audi Field this year. Miami won anyway, 3-1.

In this week’s buildup, Messi sat out Wednesday’s match in Orlando with a sore knee — his third injury- or rest-related absence of the season — before practicing in subsequent days. Miami Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino told reporters before practice Friday that he is “optimistic” the Argentina forward is going to be available against United.

With only two days to prepare following a 4-1 home defeat to the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday, United has planned for both Messi scenarios. But no amount of planning truly prepares an opponent for Messi’s wizardry, which has dazzled the sports world for almost 20 years.

“It’s not easy,” Lesesne said of not knowing Messi’s true status. “We’re going to try to go about the match plan with him in it or if he’s out of it. If he does play, obviously we brought some attention to that [in team meetings and training]. But if he doesn’t play, there are a lot of other players” who could cause problems.

In the first Messi-free meeting, United led early but conceded two second-half goals by Uruguayan superstar Luis Suárez. Miami’s quartet of former FC Barcelona teammates also includes midfielder Sergio Busquets and left back Jordi Alba. Messi, though, elevates Miami into an MLS Cup contender, if not favorite.

A month shy of his 37th birthday, he is still performing at elite levels. Aside from 10 goals — one short of the league lead — and an MLS-best 12 assists to lead the MVP race, he remains the centerpiece of a world champion Argentine national team gearing up to defend its Copa América title this summer in the United States.

“Everybody’s tried something different to stop him in his career,” United forward Ted Ku-DiPietro said. “And I don’t think anybody can even count the number of times they’ve actually stopped him.”

For many players, particularly young ones such as Ku-DiPietro, stepping onto the same field as Messi fulfills boyhood dreams.

“He’s my favorite player of all time, and it’s crazy we’re going to be playing against him,” said the 22-year-old from Oakton, Va. “I’ve always watched him. My family has talked to me about it. If I was even a fraction of how good he is, I’d be happy with myself.”

Putting aside their awe, Ku-DiPietro and United (4-4-5) say they have formulated a game plan to try countering Messi and league-leading Miami (8-2-4). Lesesne and his players would not go into detail.

Center back Lucas Bartlett said of defending Messi, “I mean, obviously he’s the best player in the world, so with a lot of care and a lot of strategy.”

Bartlett added: “You have to plan for him, but the focus is always on us. There’s some things we’ve found in the video we think we can hurt them with.”

United will need to show marked improvement after Wednesday’s performance, in which it conceded a goal just before halftime and two early in the second half en route to its worst outcome of the season.

“If we don’t correct those this weekend, we’re playing against an opponent that will absolutely hurt you,” Lesesne said. “I think we’re going to be in the right state of mind.”

Given the team’s progress and strengthening foundation under its first-year coach, United looked at Wednesday’s match as more of an anomaly than the start of a trend. Still, D.C. has conceded eight goals in three games.

Lesesne chalked up this week’s heavy loss to “controllables” — issues such as pressure on the ball, decision-making and passing efficiency. Days after attacking fluently in a 3-2 victory in Atlanta, the D.C. attack sputtered against the Red Bulls, leading to counterattacks that the defense failed to extinguish.

United’s only score came off a corner kick: With his team trailing 3-0, Bartlett headed in his first career goal. After recording a hat trick against Atlanta, Christian Benteke was blanked. Benteke, Suárez and Real Salt Lake’s Cristian Arango are tied atop the Golden Boot race with 11 goals.

Messi has posted six goals and eight assists in his past five appearances, including an MLS-record five assists against the Red Bulls. In five regular season home games, he has accounted for six goals and eight assists.

With Messi leading the charge, Miami is riding an eight-game unbeaten streak (5-0-3), and with 35 goals, the pink-clad club has scored 10 more than anyone else in the league.

Even if it must deal with Messi, United understands the importance of regaining its attacking rhythm and not placing all its focus on Miami’s maestro.

“It’s 90 minutes,” Ku-DiPietro said, “and there’s a ball at everybody’s feet.”

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