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Messi healthy, available to play vs. Atlanta – Miami’s Martino

Messi uncharacteristically left  Argentina’s  World Cup qualifying win last week over Ecuador before the final whistle, and although he did make Wednesday’s trip to Bolívia, he was not named in coach Lionel Scaloni’s 23-man squad for the 3-0 victory at La Paz’s high altitude.

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“He is fine. But we will wait until after training today to make a decision,” Martino said about how much Messi will feature against Atlanta. “We will be careful with him because we have a lot of important games in a short span.”

Miami’s schedule was packed before the international break, and it has a quick turnaround before Wednesday’s home match with Toronto FC. Messi will also have more World Cup qualifiers to navigate in October, with CONMEBOL qualifiers against Paraguay (Oct. 12) and Peru (Oct. 17).

Miami’s games around that time would both be against  Charlotte FC: at home on Wednesday, Oct. 18, and in North Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 21, to close out the regular season.

“This is something that we knew would happen at some point, but that he would begin to get used to our needs, especially for seasons like this with a lot of matches,” said Martino in regard to the prospect of resting Messi more due to his schedule.

“Playing each match, 90 minutes each game, two to three days with travel in between would get difficult.”

Messi trained with the team on Thursday and Friday, and although Atlanta plays on turf, the 36-year-old said in his lone news conference last month that he played on turf as a youth and wouldn’t have a problem doing it again.

“The truth is my youth was spent on artificial turf, my whole life was on that pitch,” he said back in August. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again.”

Turf has been a hot topic this week after many blamed the surface for future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback  Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles tendon suffered in his first game with the New York Jets.

Atlanta is one of two MLS teams left on Inter Miami’s remaining away schedule that play on turf. Charlotte is the other, and Miami won’t play there until the last game of the regular season, by which time Miami might already have sewn up a playoff spot.

If they do make the playoffs, Miami could well face a trip another Eastern Conference clubs that has turf — the  New England Revolution. Despite their recent managerial issues, the Revs are currently in second place in the standings.

A win on Saturday could propel Miami — with some help elsewhere — from 14th to 11th in the Eastern Conference, leaving it only three points off the playoffs.

Miami has already beaten Atlanta twice this season, defeating it 2-1 in May before Messi’s arrival, and then 4-0 in the Leagues Cup back in July, which was Messi’s first start and in which he contributed two goals and an assist.

Saturday will be the first trip back to the 404 for Martino, who coached the team for three seasons, leading it to an MLS Cup title in 2018. He departed after that win to take the head-coaching job with the  Mexico national side.

As many as 70,000 fans could pack into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to catch a glimpse of Messi on Saturday. The cheapest nosebleed tickets are going for $130 on secondary ticket sites, even with the potential of Messi not starting the game.

Atlanta sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but it has won only two of its past eight games in all competitions and has allowed 43 goals this season, the second most in the league behind Portland.

The team is led by Thiago Almada, the 22-year-old Argentine midfielder who has been compared to Messi due to his height (5-foot-7) and his technical ability. He leads the league with 11 assists, and he and Messi exchanged jerseys after their Leagues Cup meeting in July.

Atlanta was struggling before the summer transfer deadline but added some key pace on the wings in Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze, who have stepped up in a big way since their arrival, combining for a goal and three assists in four games.

Also on Friday, Miami signed Leonardo Campana to a contract extension through 2027 with an option for 2028.