MIAMI: FC Cincinnati led the way into the Major League Soccer (MLS) playoffs on Wednesday as the slim post-season hopes of Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami took a hit with a goalless draw against Nashville.
Second-half goals from Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez lifted Cincinnati to a 2-1 victory at Atlanta, where Colombian Edwin Mosquera’s first MLS goal had put the hosts ahead in the 10th minute.
The victory was Cincinnati’s first at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and took the Eastern Conference leaders to 57 points and the first berth in the MLS Cup playoffs with eight matches remaining in the regular season.
Miami, meanwhile, made little headway in their unlikely bid to make the playoffs as they were held scoreless for the first time in the 10 games of the Messi era.
The Argentine star had scored 11 goals in nine appearances since joining Inter Miami — including their run to the Leagues Cup crown, in a US Open Cup semi-final and in his regular-season debut off the bench in New York on Saturday.
The workload may have finally caught up with him on Wednesday as he was unable to work the magic again in front of another star-studded crowd at a blustery DRV PNK Stadium, where boxing great Floyd Mayweather and FIFA chief Gianni Infantino were among the spectators.
The draw left Inter Miami 10 points out of the final playoff spot with 10 games remaining
They travel across the country to take on MLS Cup champions Los Angeles FC on Sunday.
Messi and former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets both started the game after coming off the bench in the 60th minute in New York.
Despite controlling possession throughout a frustrating first half, Miami struggled to create real chances against Nashville’s disciplined defense.
Miami fans were on the edge of their seats after Messi drew a foul on Nashville’s Dax McCarty in the 60th minute and stepped up to take a free kick, but his effort to the bottom left corner was gathered in by Nashville goalkeeper Elliot Panicco.
Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar had a goal erased by an offside call in the 69th minute.
Messi had another free kick from a dangerous position in the 83rd minute but his shot caromed harmlessly off the wall of defenders.
Miami looked to have one last chance deep in injury time when Messi received a ball from Busquets and dribbled past two defenders, but his low right-footed shot was saved.
“What we have to do is move on,” said Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino.
“This can happen. It is true that we were a bit unaccustomed to this. The titles, the final, with a league game won the other day in New York, but we must move forward. There are still many things left to say.”
In Atlanta, Mosquera blasted home a deflected cross to put the hosts up early.
Acosta levelled the score with his 13th goal of the season in the 75th minute, splitting two defenders and playing a pass to Junior Moreno, who headed the ball down to Acosta who beat Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan with a one-time shot into the top corner.
Five minutes later Acosta collected the ball in midfield and sent it out to Alvaro Barreal on the left wing. Barreal’s cross found Vazquez, whose fifth goal of the season sealed Cincinnati’s 17th victory.