A closer look at Lionel Messi’s impact on Inter Miami and MLS in 2023 and beyond

There has never been a season like the 2023 campaign in the 28-year history of Major League Soccer. There’s been hype, sure, when the league began in 1996 and when David Beckham arrived little more than a decade later. But this? Lionel Messi signing for Inter Miami CF? This was unprecedented global fanfare.

Life in America began with a bang for Messi. He made his debut in the joint MLS-Liga MX Leagues Cup tournament against Cruz Azul on July 21, coming off the bench in the 54th minute to score a stoppage-time winner with an outrageous inch-perfect free kick.

He’d go on to record 10 goals and an assist in seven appearances in the tournament, which Miami won — the first piece of silverware in the club’s four-year history. In MLS regular-season play, though, Messi would score just once and add a pair of assists in six games. Amid his mere-mortal production in domestic competition, the Herons’ 2023 campaign ended prematurely, being eliminated from the race for a postseason place with two games remaining in the regular season. Now Messi & Co. are left to watch the MLS Cup playoffs from the comfort of their couches as they count down to 2024.

“I am proud of everything the team accomplished this season,” Messi said in a post on Instagram on Sunday. “With everyone’s work and effort, we were able to win the Leagues Cup, achieving the first title in the history of Inter Miami CF, we reached the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and we were even fighting to get into the MLS playoffs practically until the last moment.

“We are left with all the good things and above all with the desire to improve to be even more competitive next year. I would like to thank all the people at the club and the city of Miami for the support they always give us. I am sure that we will continue to live incredible moments together as has happened in recent months.”

Has there ever been a team whose fortune changed as dramatically midseason as Inter Miami’s did with the arrival of Messi?

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Before Messi and his super friends and ex-Barcelona legends — first Sergio Busquets, then Jordi Alba — entered the picture, Miami was, well, terrible. In 22 MLS matches, it had a league-worst 18 points and was offensively inept. Of the league’s 29 teams, only the Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC had scored fewer goals to that point, and none had produced a worse expected goals (xG) at 0.97 per game.

The idea that a Messi-less Miami could be competitive in the Leagues Cup would not have been worth considering. Then, of course, he arrived, and nothing was the same.

From July 21, the day Messi debuted for Miami against Cruz Azul, until Sept. 9, his final game with Miami (against Sporting Kansas City) before suffering a hamstring injury with Argentina during World Cup qualifying, Miami went undefeated. In that span of 12 games that included seven in the Leagues Cup, four in the league and one in the U.S. Open Cup, Miami won eight and drew four. It outscored its opponents 33-14 and amassed 1.59 xG per game.

Most importantly, Miami won the debut edition of the expanded 46-team Leagues Cup tournament.

In a sport where an individual’s impact can be tough to quantify, Miami’s dramatic improvement speaks to Messi’s value in a way even his own stats cannot. Still, Messi appeared in 11 matches in that 12-match span, scoring 11 goals with five assists. He scored in each of his first seven appearances, including two goals in each of the first three games he started.

In all, Messi averaged a direct goal contribution (meaning a goal or an assist) every 68 minutes. For context, MLS Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga of LAFC found his way onto the scoresheet every 75 minutes and presumptive MLS MVP recipient Luciano Acosta of Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Cincinnati did so every 103 minutes.

Miami’s season almost needs to be broken up into three parts: Before Messi, With Messi, After Messi’s Injury.

In the With Messi portion, Miami was the best team in Concacaf. After it won the Leagues Cup, Miami had this aura of invincibility that suggested it would climb not only out of the basement, but that they would surge into the playoffs, at which point all bets were off. Before Messi Miami had dug itself such a hole, though, that the Herons had practically no margin for error if they were to qualify for the postseason.

Then, Messi’s injury only made it worse. Over the season’s final two months, Messi appeared just three times, including a 90-minute outing on Decision Day when the team was already eliminated from postseason contention. And without him, Miami reverted to its early-season form, failing to win a single game in which he did not appear.

In the end, only two teams in MLS finished with fewer points than Miami. — Kyle Bonagura

For the Latino and Afro-Latino diaspora, Miami is a second home. It’s American, but it’s also something else for Latinos. It’s Latin America’s cousin, filled with Central and South American sounds and flavors. Spanish — and mostly Spanglish — is heard on every corner. From the Cubans in Little Havana to the Argentinians in North Beach, Miami’s neighborhoods represent Latino culture.

This is the most pivotal factor for Messi, his family and why they chose to come to MLS, but most importantly, Miami. After leaving Argentina as a 13-year-old, Messi wanted to feel closer to home, and he wanted to be happy again after a difficult period in Paris. Now in South Florida, he finally is.

“This is what I was looking for when we made the decision with my family: to enjoy it once more, as I’ve done my whole career, after two difficult years, the truth is we had it rough [at Paris Saint-Germain],” Messi told ESPN in August. “But as luck would have it, we’re in a place where we’re happy not just because of the results on the pitch but because of the everyday life with my wife, my kids, our lifestyle and the way we spend our time. Truth is, we’re enjoying this moment very much.”

The cynic will naturally bring up the economic incentives and how the Messi brand can grow in a country that is seeing the beautiful game spread faster than anywhere else on the planet. But the truth is that before being a World Cup champion and the greatest player the game has ever seen, Messi, like many Latinos in Miami, wanted to feel at home. Money is important, but it’s not the driving force for Messi; if it were, there’s little doubt he’d be playing in the Saudi Pro League right now.

It’s a complex, multilayered task to put into words the impact of Messi’s arrival to the American soccer landscape because the footprint of his magic first begins with the impact he makes as a Latin American superstar. The magic on the pitch transcends the fact that it’s coming, not from a European, but from a 5-foot-7 South American legend.

You walk around anywhere in Miami and chances are you’ll see an Inter Miami Messi shirt (fake or genuine). Murals adorn different neighborhoods, and in a city where the Miami Dolphins continue to shine in the NFL and the Miami Heat begin their new NBA season on Wednesday, it’s Messi’s face you’ll see on billboards.

Messi’s arrival was more than just what you saw on the pitch. It was a cultural statement. It was the ultimate homecoming for the most popular Latin American on the planet.

Just as Bad Bunny, another megastar who equally creates a tremendous impact with his music, says in his song “Vuelve Candy B” from his new album, “Desde que Messi (Messi) está en la USA to’ el mundo sabe quién es la cabra, ya no es Tom Brady, ey,” which translates as “Ever since Messi arrived in the USA, now everybody knows who the GOAT is. It’s not Tom Brady anymore.”

The point? In less than four months, Messi transformed the sporting landscape in America without speaking one word of English. You can’t get more Miami than that. — Luis Miguel Echegaray

You know how good Messi is when, after he scores and you lose to Miami, you can still feel good about your team’s performance. That’s exactly what Christian Lattanzio thought after his Charlotte FC lost 2-0 in the Leagues Cup quarterfinals.

“It seems quite strange to say that the plan to limit Messi worked quite well, yet we got beat and he scored a goal,” the Charlotte manager said earlier this month.

It’s a feeling plenty of opponents in the league had after Messi’s arrival. They had all the right ideas, they executed them well, and yet Messi still scored 10 goals in Leagues Cup play and added a goal and two assists in six MLS matches.

Charlotte’s plan was largely to make someone aside from Messi beat it, trying to keep Messi from getting touches in dangerous areas.

“You want to limit time and space on the ball,” Lattanzio said. “He’s an exceptional talent, but there are other players who are very good [on Miami].”

Lattanzio took some solace when he saw an interview with Xabi Alonso, recalling that the former Real Madrid ace said it took the legendary 2011-12 Blancos squad that reached 100 points in LaLiga a year and a half to work out a strategy to stop Messi at his peak.

“That was one of the best Real Madrid sides of all time,” Lattanzio said. “That tells you the magnitude [of what] everyone is up against facing such a great player.”

FC Dallas manager Nico Estévez drew up what might have been one of the best game plans to slow Messi, putting Miami on the brink of a Leagues Cup exit in the round of 16. Although his team wasn’t able to stop Messi either, it was the most difficult match for the Herons at least until the final, when they beat Nashville SC in a penalty shootout.

“I don’t think that much changes because of one player, even if it’s Messi, though you do have to have a special alertness,” Estévez said.

For FCD, that included a formation change, giving Messi’s countryman Alan Velasco a free role not unlike the way Messi plays. Velasco scored and played his best game since arriving in MLS last year.

“We’re in a tournament where things were going well,” Estévez recalled. “Miami comes in, which was the hot team with Messi, Busquets, Jordi Alba, and at home in front of our fans, we wanted to show we have a high level and can compete at a high level and against them.”

Things were more difficult at the back, with defensive midfielder Facundo Quignón deployed as the defensive midfielder trying to slow Messi and getting help from Sebastian Lletget. Messi, unsurprisingly, got his space early, with a sixth-minute opener, and late with a patented free kick in the 85th minute to send the game to a penalty shootout. Messi converted there, too, and Inter Miami moved on.

The experience of game-planning against Messi in MLS, for now, is this: You can treat it differently, or you can treat it like any other game. In the end, it might be damage limitation. — Jon Arnold

There was no shortage of fanfare when Messi joined MLS, and it makes sense: one of the greatest athletes of all-time was making the leap to the United States and planting his flag with Inter Miami. So how did things go? Let’s let some of the most famous people in the world, teammates and opponents tell the story.

NBA legend LeBron James was in the stands for Messi’s first game in Inter pink, and he knows as well as anyone what transcendent excellence looks like, saying “Always good to see and be in the presence of GREATNESS!!!” on Instagram.

Messi delivered in that first game, too, coming off the bench to bury the match-winning free kick in Miami’s Leagues Cup opener.

NFL star Patrick Mahomes may play the other football, but he knew how special Messi and that moment was, tweeting, “Wild man.”

“Tonight’s a dream come true for everybody in this stadium to see, and everybody in this country, to see Leo step into the MLS and perform,” Miami part-owner David Beckham said after that first match. “I don’t have many words for that.”

Miami was one of the worst teams in MLS prior to Messi’s entrance, but that changed as soon as the Argentine joined up. He was spectacular and, all of a sudden, so was Inter. “Yeah, I mean, he is the best player in the world. So this is what he does,” teammate Robert Taylor said after Messi led Miami to a 4-0 win over Atlanta that took them into the Leagues Cup knockout stages.

Messi even managed to get Miami icon and rapper Rick Ross out to DRV PNK Stadium, too. “This is my first football game ever. Lionel Messi has changed the entire energy of the state,” Ross told Apple TV. “This is different. Everyone in Miami, I suggest you come out and catch one of these games: it’s a movement.”

Of course, Ross saw Messi lead Inter to yet another win as the whole team leveled up around the maestro. “He’s just so creative. I think he’s allowing other players to flourish,” Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said. “We’re seeing a lot more creativity going forward. So as good as he is, he’s making the players around him even better.”

With Messi at the controls, Inter surged through the Leagues Cup. Not only was Miami a competitive team with Messi, they were challenging for a trophy. “I don’t get tired of talking to him, I never will. It’s amazing what he can do,” Miami’s teenage starlet Benjamin Cremaschi said. “We can’t wait so we keep on going like that and [he] helps us to get as far as we possibly can.”

Miami kept rolling through the Leagues Cup, beating one of MLS’s best teams, Philadelphia Union, in the semifinals. “The whole complexion of the team has changed incredibly,” Union veteran Alejandro Bedoya said after Messi and Miami dispatched them. “Just even talking to the young guys, Cremaschi is a great talent … I was just talking with him and he even acknowledges how much everything’s changed – the aura.”

Just days later, that aura delivered Miami the first trophy in club history as Messi and Inter lifted the Leagues Cup after a penalty kick win over Nashville SC.

Messi and Miami then turned their attention to the U.S. Open Cup, where they toppled MLS’s top team, FC Cincinnati, in the semis. “He makes the delivery on the plays that matter. And that’s where he’s a difference maker,” Cincinnati manager Pat Noonan said.

Unfortunately, Inter fell in the final, but they proved to be dangerous in league play as well. “That team is the best by far that I faced in MLS, to be honest. By far,” Giorgio Chiellini said after his LAFC side got thumped by Miami, 3-1.

That match brought out a whole cadre of celebrities, who were champing at the bit to see the awesome Argentina international. “I saw Michael Jordan one time and this is like the same thing,” Owen Wilson told Apple TV before the match. “There’s really nothing quite like it. I’ve had people reaching out to me [for tickets] back in May,” LAFC part-owner Will Ferrell said. — Ryan Rosenblatt

Miami’s midseason roster makeover was about as extensive as a team could get. It wasn’t just Messi, Alba and Busquets arriving, but young South American talents like winger Facundo Farías, center-back Tomás Avilés and central midfielder Diego Gómez were brought in as well.

Miami’s spending spree — doubling its salary expenditure vs. 2022 to become the highest-spending club in MLS — wasn’t enough for the team to grab a playoff spot, but the Herons will start next season with considerably more momentum than they did at the beginning of 2023.

For the first time since Chris Henderson became sporting director in 2021, the team will be clear of the sanctions from violating the league’s roster rules in 2020, which included having its available pot of allocation money reduced by $2,271,500 spread out over the 2022 and 2023 seasons and therefore limiting their ability to bolster the squad from top to bottom. Now Miami will be on a level playing field in terms of roster rules, allowing it to leverage even further the spending power of owners Jorge and Jose Mas. The arrivals of young prospects Farías, Avilés and Gómez mean that a big chunk of Miami’s recruiting for 2024 is already done.

There likely will be a few additions, most notably the possible arrival of legendary Uruguay forward Luis Suárez. Suárez, 36, will be available given the reported termination of his contract with Brazilian side Gremio at the end of the Serie A season in December. Therefore, no transfer fee would be required.

Given how the likes of Messi and Alba struggled with injury down the stretch, there are questions about the wisdom of making Miami older instead of younger. Yet manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino is clear that bringing in the former Barcelona striker is something he’s considering.

“Within our analysis of the upcoming season, and the needs we may have, we have an analysis with Luis and an analysis without Luis,” Martino told reporters earlier this week. “When the moment arrives to make Suárez’s situation with respect to Inter Miami official, we’ll be prepared to go in the corresponding direction.”

Regardless of whether Suárez arrives, forward Josef Martínez will almost certainly depart. Atlanta United picked up the bulk of Martínez’s $4 million salary this season and while Miami has a club option for next year, Martino said about Martínez after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Charlotte FC that it would be “very difficult for him to continue in the institution [club] for next season.”

Luka Modric has also been linked with a move to Miami, but barring a significant change in the league’s roster rules to allow for freer spending — multiple sources around MLS told ESPN that is unlikely to happen for 2024 — there wouldn’t appear to be room for both the Croatia international and Suárez.

The aging legs of Messi and Busquets, 36 and 35, respectively, means that Inter require players to do the running in midfield for its stars. There are plenty of options already with recently re-signed midfielder Gregore, Jean Mota, Benjamin Cremaschi, Dixon Arroyo and David Ruiz. That said, it would appear something would have to give there in terms of numbers.

Miami could stand to have some additional help on the back line given that it conceded 54 goals this season, although the long-term injuries to Gregore and Mota didn’t help in this regard. If Miami is going to continue to play a high line, it could stand to get some additional pace in the back.

Even if most of 2024’s recruitment is already done, the second half of Miami’s 2023 season showcased how much potential is in the team. A full preseason and better minutes management of Messi, Busquets and Alba should ensure the Herons go a step or two further next year. — Jeff Carlisle

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