It’s crunch time for Messi, Inter Miami. Here is what team must do to make the playoffs

Ticket prices for Inter Miami dipped a bit this week as Lionel Messi left for Argentina national team duty and will be unavailable for the home game Saturday against Kansas City.

He is one of nine Miami players called up by their national teams for September matches (most in MLS), eight of whom will be missing for the Kansas City game. Fortunately for Miami, plenty of regular starters stayed behind, including goalkeeper Drake Callender, who was invited to U.S. camp but will remain with Miami through this weekend’s match and join the national team for the Sept. 12 friendly against Oman in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In addition to Callender, other key players expected to be in the lineup Saturday include Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, DeAndre Yedlin, Kamal Miller, Leo Campana, Dixon Arroyo, and recent signees Tomas Aviles and Facundo Farias, who scored in the 3-1 win at Los Angeles FC on Saturday.

Players who will be missing are Messi, Benjamin Cremaschi (USA), Sergiy Kryvtsov (Ukraine), Robert Taylor (Finland), Josef Martinez (Venezuela), David Ruiz (Honduras), Diego Gomez (Paraguay), and Edison Azcona (Dominican Republic).

“It will be a difficult match with so many national team players missing, including Leo, who is always a difference maker for us, not only with his goals and assists but how he plays,” said Busquets. “We have to step it up, prepare well and hope to continue in the same way we have been playing to reach our objective.”

Coach Tata Martino said with so many players away he will likely fill up the game day roster with some second team players from the club’s MLS Next Pro team.

Inter Miami is coming off a significant 3-1 upset on the road against defending MLS champion Los Angeles FC, a game that was attended by dozens of Hollywood A-listers and a sellout crowd. With that victory, Miami extended its unbeaten streak to 11 games since Messi’s arrival after going winless for the 11 games prior to him joining the team.

Despite the summer unbeaten streak, Miami remains in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and in danger of not making the playoffs. Messi’s first eight games were Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup games, during which MLS was on hiatus. The MLS season resumed in late-August and Miami picked up two wins against New York Red Bulls and LAFC and a tie against Nashville.

Inter Miami has nine regular season games remaining and is making a desperate push to make the playoffs. Miami sits in 14th place in the East with 25 points, eight points from ninth-place D.C. United, which has 33 points and holds the final playoff spot. The top seven teams in each conference earn automatic berths. The eighth and nine-place teams enter a wild card play-in for the final spot.

Here is what Inter Miami must do to make the playoffs:

Over the past three seasons, teams needed an average of 43.3 points to finish in ninth place. Last year’s ninth-place finisher had 42 points. If this season follows a similar path, Miami will need to average approximately two points per game (ties alone won’t do) for the remainder of the season.

It is worth noting that Inter Miami has played two fewer games than most teams in the East, so it has two games in hand heading into this crucial stretch. Five of the remaining games are against teams below the Eastern Conference playoff line, and Kansas City is below the playoff line in the West.

The remaining league games are:

Sat. Sept. 9 Home vs. Sporting Kansas City (11th place in West)

Sat. Sept. 16: at Atlanta United (6th place in East, 42 pts.)

Wed. Sept. 20: Home vs Toronto (15th place in East, 22 pts.)

Sun. Sept. 24: at Orlando City (3rd place in East, 47 pts.)

Sat. Sept. 30: Home vs New York City FC (12th place in East, 30 pts.)

Wed. Oct. 4: at Chicago Fire (10th place in East, 32 pts.)

Sat. Oct. 7: Home vs. FC Cincinnati (1st place in East, 57 pts.)

Wed. Oct. 18: Home vs Charlotte FC (11th place in East, 31 pts.)

Sat. Oct. 21: at Charlotte FC (11th place in East, 31 pts.)

“We will try to put together the best team we can for Kansas City, and after that we hope the players who went to their national teams come back healthy,” Martino said. “Then we must keep trying to ascend. Now more than ever we can not slow down, we must keep battling as long as we are mathematically alive.

“The important thing is for us to compete well and keep gaining points. This week we got seven points of a possible nine with two of the wins on the road; it is a shame we got only one against Nashville, but it’s been a good week and that is encouraging.”