Voices: Joseph Lowery

Is Inter Miami's Lionel Messi-led turnaround sustainable?


One game down, 11 games to go.

After topping the New York Red Bulls 2-0 on Saturday evening, Inter Miami CF have 11 regular-season games standing between them and potentially qualifying for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. They climbed above Toronto FC to 14th place in the Eastern Conference table over the weekend, but there are still five teams left for Lionel Messi and Co. to leapfrog en route to at least a Wild Card game as the No. 9 seed.

It’s been utter, complete, joyful, winning chaos since Messi and Sergio Busquets (and later Jordi Alba and some young reinforcements) arrived. Miami have won nine straight games in regulation or penalty kicks, winning Leagues Cup, reaching the US Open Cup Final and booking a 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spot. They look inevitable right now.

But can they keep up this pace — or if not this pace, then one close to it? Let’s zoom out on Miami, the greatest show in MLS right now.

What Miami have gotten right

After suffering through the first two-thirds of the regular season due to injuries and a purposefully incomplete squad that was waiting for Messi to walk through the door, Inter Miami have snapped to attention. With Tata Martino leading the way from the sidelines and a talented bunch of players on the field, we’ve seen a predictable shift for Miami.

The Herons are now a possession-based team…which is to say, they try to get Messi and Busquets on the ball as much as possible.

Changing Miami’s tactical identity was a no-brainer for Martino. If you’re going to sign the best player of all time, you have to do everything you can to maximize his impact. In short, you have to get him the rock. Messi, for his part, has done everything possible to maximize his on-field impact: he’s scored 11 goals in all competitions and has yet to leave a game without directly influencing the box score in some way. The Argentine has been absolutely incredible in MLS, pulling out highlight-reel moment after highlight-reel moment. Busquets, in large part, has done his job, too. He’s either punishing defensive mistakes or creating them by drawing in defenders with his crazy-strong gravity and opening space for teammates elsewhere.

Those two players will pull off magic wherever they go, though I’ll admit the sheer amount of magic produced by Messi in particular has caught me off guard.

Inter Miami have been so successful over the last month in large part because of their superstar signings. But some credit should also go to the role players. By signing center back Tomás Avilés, midfielder Diego Gómez and forward Facundo Farías, Miami now have two things they haven’t had all season: depth and energy. Those three U22 Initiative players, combined with Miami’s homegrown players and the recovering Jean Mota and Gregore, form a group that can help provide Messi with defensive cover and chances to rest. With several midweek games coming Miami’s way in the sprint to Decision Day (Oct. 21), as well as international commitments, that rest is only going to be more important.

They’re not a complete team – more on that in a moment – but Miami now have more firepower than any team in MLS and enough capable bodies to hang in any game, with supplementary pieces raising their level and then some. The last nine games prove that point quite well.

Where Miami are vulnerable

We finished off the last section talking about Miami’s roster construction, so let’s pick up on that point here, shall we?

Inter Miami have a good goalkeeper in Drake Callender. They have solid starters and suitable depth across the backline and in central midfield. They have two capable (and sometimes more than that) strikers in Josef Martínez and Leo Campana. There is one area where the squad is a little light, though. Ironically, it’s the winger spot. After Messi, it’s just Robert Taylor and Farias who are truly comfortable playing in the wide areas for Martino’s team.

Given Messi will miss three games for Miami while on international duty with Argentina, according to Martino, their lack of options out wide could turn out to be an issue. It will be less of one if Farias ends up being as good as he’s looked in limited minutes so far, but it will still be an issue – as will Miami’s overall ability to pick up wins without Messi in the team while he’s playing for the defending World Cup champs.

Messi rescued Miami several times during their Leagues Cup run, scoring goals at a ridiculous, unsustainable-even-for-the-GOAT rate. He rescued them again in the US Open Cup semifinals at FC Cincinnati with a pair of assists to get Miami back in the game.

But do Inter Miami have the difference-makers to keep pushing when their new captain isn’t in the team? Or what about when he has a slightly quieter night, say with just one assist instead of two? Right now, I’d lean towards the answer to both of those questions being “no.”

So far this year, Cincinnati and Nashville both showed you can slow Inter Miami down with disciplined, focused in-block defending. Dallas showed you can get at them with a thoughtful high-press and aggressive attacking play. To focus on Nashville for a moment, Gary Smith’s team used a smart defensive scheme to pressure Messi and Busquets and force the rest of Miami’s squad to break them down. They bracketed Busquets with the front two and a midfield double pivot and cut off part of the pipeline into Messi – Miami’s attack suffered for it. Their only goal in that Leagues Cup Final meeting with Nashville came from a one-off Messi wonderstrike.

There are ways to beat Miami. It just hasn’t quite happened yet.

What are their playoff chances?

At this point, it seems abundantly clear Inter Miami are one of the best, if not the best team in MLS right now for reasons described above. It also seems abundantly clear the team has flaws, for reasons that are also described above. With that in mind – and the fact soccer teams don’t just go on winning forever – Miami won’t be able to maintain their current form for the rest of the year.

But can they sneak into the playoffs? Well, it’s going to be really, really difficult. But it’s not impossible.

Over the last three MLS regular seasons, ninth-place teams in each conference (the last team eligible for the playoffs this season) have averaged 43.3 points. Inter Miami, then, need 23 points from their final 11 matches (2.09 points per game) to sneak past that 43 point mark. They probably can’t drop more than 10 points or lose more than three games while winning the rest between now and the end of Decision Day if they’re going to qualify for the postseason.

With Messi slated to be away from the team, a busy calendar and a US Open Cup Final to play on Sept. 27 against Houston Dynamo FC, the margins are tiny for Inter Miami.

But they’re not invisible.

It’s impossible to project exactly what’s going to happen in this never-seen-before soccer science experiment. Messi and Miami could make the playoffs and none of us would truly be surprised. Or, they could miss the playoffs and we’d nod our heads and go, yeah, that makes sense.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: we’re in for quite the ride.