Messi, Josef & more: Phil Neville talks Inter Miami's transfer plans

Phil Neville presser

Ask Phil Neville what Inter Miami CF must do in order to become an elite MLS club in 2023, and he gets straight to the point.

“We need to bring in two or three starting players to take us to that next level," the English coach said in his opening preseason press conference ahead of his third year in charge of the Herons.

After a largely successful 2022 that saw the South Florida-based club reach their first full-season Audi MLS Cup Playoffs – which ended with a Round One loss to New York City FC – Neville believes the time has come to aspire to bigger and better things.

"I think last year was good," Neville said. "We want this year to be great."

Greatness won't come easy, or cheap, Neville concedes. But he's confident the club will make noise in the transfer market, with big-time names like Lionel Messi and Josef Martínez being discussed during Monday's media availability.

Hopeful about Messi

Recent reports linking the Argentine superstar to MLS appeared to lose steam after the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner led La Albiceleste to World Cup glory at Qatar 2022. However, the 35-year-old has yet to renew his contract with current club Paris Saint-Germain, which expires at the end of Europe's 2022-23 season.

As long as there's a chance, both Neville and the Miami higher-ups remain hopeful of landing one of the greatest soccer players of all time.

"For us, the landscape’s not changed at all," he said about the possibility of signing the former FC Barcelona superstar. "With any deal for any DP of the level you’re talking about is complicated, it takes time.

"... Rest assured we’re working every second of every day to bring in the best players, and I think he’s one of the best.“

Miami captain Gregore echoed his coach's sentiments, saying he'd relish the opportunity to play alongside one of the world's most famous athletes.

"It can happen," the Brazilian midfielder stated. "… If Messi comes, I'll be really happy. Imagine working with Messi. Why not?"

"I like Josef Martínez"

While signing a soccer legend like Messi would be massive for any club, especially one with Miami's ambitions, the more urgent business of replacing recently-retired striker Gonzalo Higuaín remains key.

The striker corps currently includes wintertime arrival Nicolás Stefanelli, Robbie Robinson, Ari Lassiter and Leo Campana, although none bring the same proven goal-scoring abilities as Pipa, who almost single-handedly carried the team to the playoffs last year thanks to a late-summer scoring tear (14 goals after mid-July).

Could Josef Martínez possibly fill the void left by Higuaín? Judging by Neville's comments, the Atlanta United legend – who's reportedly on his way out of the club with a year left on his contract – would certainly be a worthy replacement.

"I like him," the Englishman said flat-out when asked about the Venezuelan striker. "He’s always scored goals against us.

"... He looks like someone that’s a machine, that’s hungry, that scores goals, that doesn’t need many chances. So we’re looking to strengthen. For somebody to come into this football club and be a starter, they have to be really good."

Europe-based targets

Messi and Martínez aside, Neville hinted that Miami have some other "interesting moves to make" ahead of the new season. Without naming names, he made it clear that some of the club's targets are "top players" plying their trade across the Atlantic.

"Our calendar in MLS doesn't marry with the rest of Europe. So, most of the top, top players in Europe are coming out of contracts at the end of their season, which is June/July. So there may have to be some patience," Neville warned.

"Rest assured for our supporters, we’re doing everything to bring the best players to our football club."

At the same time, Neville also has interest in signing some MLS-based stars as well. They were linked to now-LAFC center back Aaron Long when he was in free agency.

"There are one or two other players in the league we’re really excited to look at as well," Neville stated.

A clean slate for Pizarro

Higuaín's breathtaking 2022 turnaround salvaged a mixed-bag MLS stint and helped him retire on a high note. The same can't quite be said of Blaise Matuidi, the 2018 World Cup winner with France who also recently called it a career after watching all of last season on the sidelines.

The final chapter on Rodolfo Pizarro, another Designated Player from their 2020 expansion season, isn't fully written. Neville conceded there's disappointment around the Mexican playmaker, who spent last season on loan with Liga MX's CF Monterrey, but a return for 2022 is in the cards.

“We see him as a new player," Neville said about the 28-year-old, who has 7g/12a in 46 regular-season MLS games. "I think it’s fair to say in his first season it didn’t go as well as planned for him or for the team. I think the year away was important for him.

"... This is his last year at Inter Miami. He loves being at the club, he loves being in the city. He’s coming into a different environment," Neville added, hoping that the team's new winning mindset rubs off on Pizarro.

"This is a clean slate. We know his qualities, the biggest challenge for Rodolfo is to get on the team."

Working to re-sign Pozuelo

Besides Higuaín, 2022 midseason signing Alejandro Pozuelo deserves arguably the most credit for Miami's postseason berth. The 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP was acquired for little from Toronto FC last July and performed brilliantly, providing 2g/6a in 12 games while forming one of the league's most lethal partnerships with Pipa.

Currently out of contract, Pozuelo is still very much a priority for the Herons, who hope to work out a deal with the Spaniard.

"We’re working hard for Pozuelo. He obviously is a talented player – he changed our season, him and Gonzalo changed our season," Neville said.

"Obviously with Rodolfo coming back it’s a jigsaw. It’s jigsaw-like building a roster in this league."