National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi creates "tidal wave" for MLS: Inter Miami sporting director

Lionel Messi goal celebration

There are just a few days left in MLS's summer transfer window, and as many times as he swipes them clear, the message notifications on Chris Henderson’s smartphone are relentless and insistent.

"Phone is blowing up right now," Inter Miami CF’s chief soccer officer and sporting director tells with characteristic understatement during a Friday morning conversation.

This time of year is always frenetic for CSOs across MLS. When you’re a last-place team catapulted almost overnight towards "superclub" territory by the arrival of Lionel Messi, the intensity is much further over the top.

Messi, his old friends and FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and young Paraguayan central midfielder Diego Gómez have joined this month. Another U22 Initiative signing, Facundo Farías, a 20-year-old Argentine attacker some have compared to Carlos Tevez, went official Saturday morning. Those last two newcomers were multi-million-dollar outlays, according to multiple reports. The first three didn't require a transfer fee.

And still there’s one last piece of business on the docket, at least for now.

“We’re trying to work on our last guy,” explained Henderson before the Aug. 2 deadline. “We were up pretty late last night on calls, and we're kind of stuck at the moment. So let's see how it plays out today.

“I think [it’s] partially because of the status of the three big guys we signed and then trying to add the U22s in,” he added, “young and old, to keep the team balanced and then show we want to build for the future at the same time. But it's been – yeah, it's been intense.”

Floodgates open

It begs the question: Are doors opening for IMCF now the reigning world champion and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is wearing pink and black? Or has the cost of doing business skyrocketed even faster?

“It's kind of both,” said Henderson. “Yes, people think we have money but at the same time, people want to come play with these guys. So I think there's a difference in the club perspective versus the player. We have had players, I think it's going to happen throughout our league, there’s players who are like, ‘I want to go play in MLS, in America.’

“I feel like there's a tidal wave in our league: it's becoming one of the leagues of choice, and we're going to get some real good players that are presenting themselves. But yeah, there are challenges in trying to get over the finish line and it always comes down to the last few days, when now everyone's pushing to see how much they can get.”

Chris Henderson - Inter Miami
Chris Henderson is working behind the scenes to improve Inter Miami.

At a club packed with outsized personalities and reputations, from Messi to co-owners Jorge and Jose Mas and David Beckham to new head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Henderson is the quiet worker, content to fly under the radar. He’s quick to express thanks and defer credit towards director of soccer operations Niki Budalić, director of player personnel and compliance Meghan Cameron, director of data analytics Sam Gregory and director of scouting & recruitment Mark Prizant, all industry veterans who brought extensive résumés to IMCF.

All the wheeling and dealing and salary-budget acrobatics needed to build a squad that is already drawing scrutiny as more packed with elite talent – in the eyes of some – than league regulations are supposed to allow? That’s the work of Henderson and his team.

“We have the rules of the league and we're trying to make sure that we don't waste a dollar,” he said of the early critiques of Miami’s rapid rebuild. “What are we going to look like in ‘24? How are these moves right now? What's the knock-on effect to our roster? Some of it is predicting what we think we can get for a move, whether it's a sale outside the league, whether it's trade within the league, and sometimes you get more than you think and sometimes you get less.

“There's that guesswork you need to figure out in valuations of players. And a lot of that comes down to, is the player in good form? When your team's at the bottom of the league, your players aren't asked for. When you start moving up and you're higher on the table, everyone thinks your players are better and you get more value. So all of that kind of plays into each other – and timing of things. Timing is really important when you make moves that you think will improve your team.”

Busquets Messi
Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are both DPs for Inter Miami.

A bold vision

With a quick smile and tousled blond locks, Henderson carries the laid-back, low-key aura of a surfer, though he’s quick to clarify he’s not one – despite a southern California introduction to that sport from his old UCLA roommate and teammate Joe-Max Moore. He's content just to have a good beach a short drive down the road.

Looks can be deceiving, of course. The Seattle-area native is at the heart of a pressure cooker, remaking a roster on the fly as Miami aim to transform, in the space of one month, from a cellar dweller to a trophy contender worthy of the sport’s GOAT. And it’s not the first radical makeover he’s had to pull off in South Florida.

Arriving from the Seattle Sounders in January 2021 after Miami’s frustrating debut season, Henderson had to reshape an underperforming group while handcuffed by sanctions imposed for club violations of MLS regulations in year one. Faced with a challenge diametrically different to that of Messi’s recruitment, he and the rest of the front office turned the Herons into unexpected participants in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“At the end of ‘21, we just said, there's a couple of ways we could go. We could slowly do this over time, or we can just go for it and say let's just clear it out, try and do as much as we can now and compete as well as we can,” Henderson noted in a conversation during preseason.

“We changed 19 players, I think, so it was a massive overhaul. And it was about trying to see how quickly we can get a whole new group of players to gel together and trying to find a bunch of bargains, and players who can play above their cap number. And we had to get rid of some guys we didn't want to – Lewis Morgan was one, \[Julián\] Carranza, some players who had real potential that we liked, that we just had to make the move to make the cap work.”

Messi Martino
Tata Martino and Lionel Messi are reunited in Florida.

Painful as that process might have been, it laid the groundwork for a gradual climb to respectability. Now, even in last place in the league, with multiple key contributors sidelined by long-term injuries – Henderson still laments the absence of center mids Jean Mota and Gregore, whose loss “gutted our team at the beginning of the year” – the RosaNegra can aim higher and swing bigger.

Messi has changed everything, profoundly.

“He wants to be one of the guys, fit in the locker room, fit in with the team, humble,” said Henderson of Messi. “But the first one or two training sessions – we'll play sometimes half-field, create three, four chances each game. When he started playing, we had 10 clear scoring chances in 10 minutes, just either scoring himself or setting someone up with a pass or splitting players – just amazing, in the first week, how he can change a team. So that part to me, just his mentality coming in here, I’m just thrilled with, super happy.”

Reversing fortunes

It’s early days. As impressive as their two Leagues Cup group-stage wins were, the Herons have yet to deal with MLS’s famously draining away travel since Messi hit town. The final months of their season will be a grind, with almost no margin for error if they are to overcome the yawning gap in the standings that separates them from a playoff place.

Yet so far he and Busquets have been model Designated Players, embracing an unfamiliar new environment and elevating the level of everyone around them with limited signs of their own ego or stardom.

“Just six months ago, [Messi] was lifting the World Cup,” noted Henderson. “To be around the best player in the world, of all time, it's pretty amazing, and it's exciting for everyone in the building. But I do think it's really important that things are normal, like, it feels like a team. We kind of protect everything around the players and the coaching staff so they can work, they can focus, and I think that is appreciated. I think Messi appreciates that when he comes into the club, this is his space and the team's space to work.”

With an unmatched knowledge of MLS’s inner workings and more than a decade of service in Seattle during the Sounders’ early years, Henderson can call on prior experiences in this regard. He points to the Rave Green’s 2016 campaign, when they were languishing in the Western Conference basement in midsummer before the combination of a coaching change and the acquisition of Nicolás Lodeiro vaulted them to their first MLS Cup championship.

“There's a lot of similarities to the beginning of the franchise in Seattle. You feel now the momentum building and the [new Miami Freedom Park] stadium coming on, commitment from Jose, Jorge and David, the facilities in place now for the training center, adding now to the roster,” he said.

“And now we have the best in the world. It's only going to help our team and now while adding the pieces around that, you really feel like OK, this is something. If you add the right pieces to balance the new players, you can build something sustainable, something that through core pieces, you can build off.”

David Beckham MIA
David Beckham and Inter Miami's vision is coming to life.

As dispiriting as the first half of this season has been – IMCF are winless in their last 11 league matches, eight of them losses – it pressed into service a promising crop of youngsters whose baptisms by fire could pay dividends in the long run.

“I take the young guys that we have coming through our academy,” said Henderson, “and the experience that they got this year – we suffered a lot in results, but the experience we got: Ian Fray got injured, but Ian Fray, Benja Cremaschi, David Ruiz, Noah Allen, you go through just some of the guys who are getting in training every day, it'll be really important in two years. And then you have Diego Gómez, Farias, those other young players now are going to really have an opportunity to build a core in the next three, four years.”

Even if the postseason push falls short, IMCF still have two shots at hardware with Leagues Cup and US Open Cup, the latter via an increasingly tasty-looking semifinal clash with Supporters’ Shield leaders FC Cincinnati on Aug. 23. Henderson’s job requires him to keep the big picture in mind, and he sees a consistent contender taking shape as the Herons clamber back towards full strength.

“There'll be real competition for positions,” he predicted. “Tata has players he can choose from, it'll be hard to pick the bench. … Except for one West Coast trip, we're all Eastern Conference [matchups] the rest of the way. So I think that will help travel-wise. We get through August, which is a tough month weather-wise, but from playing down here when I was a player [with the defunct Miami Fusion] in 2001, you get used to the heat, and you feel like on gameday, OK, if we can get through the last 20, 30 minutes we're going to have a real advantage on teams … The big thing will be how we perform on the road.

“We'll see. One game at a time. Hopefully we can win something at the end of this.”