Whitecaps fans frustrated superstar Messi will miss Vancouver vs. Miami game

whitecaps fans frustrated superstar messi will miss vancouver vs. miami game

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi (10) pushes forward as CF Montreal's Fernando Alvarez (4) and Samuel Piette (6) defend during first half MLS soccer action against CF Montreal in Montreal, Saturday, May 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

VANCOUVER — Marc DeLuca and his wife had the perfect sixth birthday gift for their son, Jack — tickets to see Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF play the Whitecaps in Vancouver.

News that the legendary Argentine soccer star didn't make the trip to B.C. has devastated not only the DeLucas, but thousands of fans who ponied up for pricey tickets to Saturday's game.

“It was supposed to be a big surprise for (Jack) to see his soccer idol," said Marc DeLuca, who spent about $1,500 for five tickets in the upper bowl at B.C. Place.

"It just completely obliterates our birthday plans."

Messi isn't the only player set to miss the match, which was expected to draw more than 50,000 fans.

Miami — the top team in the Major League Soccer standings with a 9-2-4 record — also opted to keep Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez and Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets in Florida.

The decision is based on the club's upcoming schedule, which includes three games between Saturday and the following Saturday, Miami head coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino said Friday.

“We thought it was the most prudent for them not to play this match. They have been training but they will not be available for the game," he said through an interpreter.

“We obviously understand the frustration of the people wanting to watch these players play. We as coaches sometimes have to make these very difficult football decisions. But we always have to keep in mind the players’ health first.”

Martino was quick to note that the artificial turf at B.C. Place did not play a role in the decision. Keeping the trio at home was all about saving them from gruelling travel and a three-hour time change, he said.

In the past, MLS has opted not to schedule mid-week games for teams that have travelled long distances, or scheduled another road game nearby, Martino added.

"But it’s not a complaint," he said. "We understand in our specific case that the players that we’re talking about are very important for everyone. But the health of these players is the priority.”

For soccer fan Sarkis Vides, Miami leaving three of its top stars at home feels "kind of disrespectful."

“If it’s a concert, like a Taylor Swift ticket, and she doesn’t show up, then the event is cancelled," said Vides. "So you’re paying for Inter Miami versus Whitecaps, but Inter Miami’s squad isn’t really showing up. Their B-team is showing up.”

MLS issued a statement Friday saying it will "continue to review measures regarding how clubs report player availability."

"Major League Soccer acknowledges fan disappointment when marquee players are unavailable for matches," the statement read. "Each MLS club makes its own personnel and competitive decisions based on what they believe is in the best interests of the club and each player."

Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said he's disappointed, too.

“It’s a bummer like for everyone else," he said. "You would love also the opportunity to have the possibility to play against a lot of very strong and quality players and arguably probably the best player in the last 20 or 30 years. But it is what it is. The main focus is playing well.”

The 'Caps (5-4-4) are in need of a solid result, especially after dropping a 2-0 decision to Canadian Premier League side Cavalry FC in Canadian Championship play on Tuesday.

Saturday won't be the first time Messi has missed an MLS game this season. Fans in Orlando, New York and Washington D.C. were also disappointed when the World Cup winner didn't play road games in their cities.

After signing a blockbuster deal with Miami last summer, Messi also missed games in Atlanta and Chicago. The Chicago Fire attempted to win over angry fans by offering a credit for the game.

Whitecaps chief executive officer Axel Schuster said that isn't an option in Vancouver. Chicago is an Eastern Conference team that will get another visit from Messi and Miami soon, he said, while the 'Caps can't make the same promise.

Instead, the Whitecaps are offering fans 50 per cent off all in-stadium food and beverages on Saturday, plus a free kids meal for anyone 18 and under.

That's not enough for the DeLucas.

“I know (the Whitecaps) don’t control who comes to play, but they plastered his face all over billboards, all over the SkyTrain," DeLuca said. "They billed the experience as ‘Come see Messi!’"

The Whitecaps will examine what the club could have done differently in the lead up to Saturday's game, Schuster said.

“We'll think through that and we'll work on what we can do better," he said.

INTER MIAMI CF (9-2-4) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (5-4-4)

B.C. Place, Saturday

STREAKY PLAY: Vancouver and Miami come into Saturday's game on very different streaks. The 'Caps are winless in their last five MLS games (0-2-3) while Miami is unbeaten in its last nine league outings (6-0-3).

WELCOME BACK: Whitecaps fans may see a familiar face in Miami's lineup. Midfielder Julian Gressel made 38 appearances across all competitions for Vancouver between 2022 and 2023, putting up seven goals and nine assists.

SOCCER SWAP: A Canadian Premier League club gave fed-up fans an opportunity to trade their Whitecaps tickets in for another game on Saturday. Vancouver FC said anyone with a ticket to the MLS match could come see the CPL side host provincial rivals Pacific FC in Langley, B.C., instead by simply showing proof of payment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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