Then Sunday evening at BMO Stadium, the legendary Italian defender got a first-hand look at how ex-FC Barcelona superstars Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba – as well as U22 Initiative signings Diego Gómez, Facundo Farías and Tomás Avilés – have transformed the Herons from floundering to formidable.
Suffice it to say the nine-time Serie A champion was mighty impressed.
“That team is the best by far that I faced in MLS, to be honest. By far,” Chiellini declared after Miami’s 3-1 win over his Black & Gold captivated Hollywood. “They are in a situation where it's not easy to reach the playoffs, but I bet on it. Not bet, really.
“But I think they will join the playoffs and I don't want to be in the first seed in the East because you reach it to face Miami in the first round and you are first or second, then it's not so good. But this is the best team by far."
Miami’s latest triumph leaves them 11 games unbeaten across all competitions (7W-0L-4D in regulation time) since Messi and Busquets debuted in mid-July, all while lifting the 2023 Leagues Cup title, booking a 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spot and soon hosting the 2023 US Open Cup Final vs. Houston Dynamo FC.
Yet the question remains if the Herons can rise into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, as Chiellini predicted. With nine games to play, they’d need to make up an eight-point gap by Decision Day (Oct. 21) to reach at least the Eastern Conference’s ninth-and-final postseason spot. That requires near perfection, all while teams above them drop points.
To climb out of this hole, inflicted by Miami’s pre-Messi form, likely means more special nights from the GOAT. After a two-assist performance at LAFC, Messi now has 11 goals and eight assists in 11 games with his new team.
"He is very smart and he moves depending on the ball, depending on our positioning, depending on the space that you give him," Chiellini observed about Messi. "He seems to be walking for most of the game, but when he feels the blood, when he feels the good senses, he completely turns his velocity, his speed, his movement."
Further adding to the challenge, head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has said Messi will miss “at least three games” in this stretch run – including their next test, Sept. 9 at home vs. surging Sporting Kansas City (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), while on international duty with Argentina.
But if there’s anything the early days of Messi’s MLS career have taught us, it’s to recalibrate expectations and believe the seemingly impossible is within reach.
And with the world watching Messi’s every move in Miami’s iconic pink kit, Chiellini said it's crucial MLS capitalizes on this energy and momentum.
"I think the arrival of Leo in this league, it’s very good," said the former Juventus captain, who joined LAFC in June 2022. "Not just for Miami and for the game, but for the attention that everyone now gives to the MLS. It’s a huge step for this league. I said that from one year ago, when I arrived.
"Fortunately, with the arrival of Messi, everything is changing, everyone is opening their eyes. It’s a step. Part of that has to be a step, then many clubs that want to invest, they could have the opportunity to do it. This league has a huge potential. Now it’s time to show this potential."