Atlanta United is less than two weeks away from one of its most anticipated matches of the season. On Saturday Sept. 16, the 5-Stripes will host Inter Miami CF and the seven-time Ballon d'Or award-winner Lionel Messi at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The two sides have already met twice this calendar year, both of which were at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Miami defeated Atlanta 2-1 in a regular season match in May prior to Messi’s arrival, and then the 5-Stripes fell 4-0 to Miami in their Leagues Cup opener and Messi’s first start in July.
Atlanta soccer fans have been excited to see the FIFA World Cup champion in person since he announced he was joining MLS this summer but were worried he wouldn’t suit up for the match in Atlanta’s stadium. There was speculation Messi would not play on turf; however, he casually debunked those rumors in a press conference last month.
“The truth is my youth was spent on artificial turf, my whole life was on that pitch,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is one of six MLS stadiums that use a form of artificial turf, a surface often avoided by players coming from grass-filled European leagues. Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham frequently voiced his disdain for turf when he played for LA Galaxy from 2007-2012, and the same went for Messi’s former Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry while with New York Red Bulls from 2010-2014.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber previously claimed he expected the clubs with turf stadiums to bring in natural grass when hosting Miami but ultimately left the decision to them. Atlanta and Charlotte FC are the only clubs with turf stadiums remaining on Miami’s away schedule for the rest of the 2023 regular season, and neither of which have made public plans to change playing surfaces.
The September FIFA international window will likely be the determining factor of Messi’s availability for the Atlanta match. He, along with Atlanta’s assist leader Thiago Almada, is rejoining the Argentina squad for two World Cup qualifiers on Sept. 7 and 12, which means a four-day turnaround before the match between Atlanta and Inter Miami CF.
Messi has played in all 11 and started in nine matches since joining Miami. His first absence will be Miami’s home match against Kansas City on September 9, since it falls during the international window. Messi’s availability against Atlanta will be up to Miami head coach Tata Martino, who recently said the club will have to learn to play without Messi, as he will have to rest at some point.
“His whole career, he always wants to play every game,” Martino said. “Sometimes you have to convince him to stop, so that he can recover and be fit for other games. External factors are not things I take into account for whether he plays or not.”