The seven-time Ballon d’ Or winner, who had missed five of his last six games because of a leg injury, was not in the starting lineup but was expected to play at some point in the match.
Anticipating a second-half appearance, fans at DRV PNK Stadium screamed his name when Messi and teammates began warmups along the sidelines in the second half. The screams intensified as Messi approached the midfield area and entered the match in the 55th minute.
He made an immediate impact, drawing a foul and free kick in the 59th minute. But his shot from 25 yards sailed high and wide.
Cincinnati, in first place in the Eastern Conference, won the game on Álvaro Barreal’s goal in the 78th minute. Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender stopped Yuya Kubo’s point-blank shot and Barreal retrieved the deflection and converted with his left foot from 8 yards.
Messi had another free kick during stoppage time but his equalizing attempt sailed wide left.
The loss kept Miami (9-17-6) at 33 points with two matches remaining while ninth-place Montreal, which held the ninth and last Eastern Conference playoff berth solidified its spot with its 4-1 win over Portland.
Miami went 1-2-2 with Messi out of the lineup.
Cincinnati (20-5-8, 68 points) has already clinched the top berth in the East and a first-round bye.
Miami pressured throughout the first half but could not beat goalkeeper Roman Celentano.
Josef Martinez and Benjamin Cremaschi had the best scoring opportunities, but their shots deflected off the goalpost in the 22nd and 24th minutes. Celentano also dove and deflected Facundo Farias’ 20-yard shot in the 30th minute.
Miami’s remaining league matches after Saturday will be a home and road set against Charlotte Oct. 18 and 21.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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