FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The positive vibes were immaculate at the Florida Blue Training Center earlier this month.
“It was an incredible gesture. A clear reflection of the way he carries himself every day in the club,” Victor Pastora, Inter Miami’s academy director, told MLSsoccer.com. “As extraordinary as he is, the gesture didn't surprise us because he is very accessible. He comes almost every afternoon to watch them in training. It’s just the way he is.”
While Messi sightings have become more regular at the training facility, academy players, their parents and even staff members still react in disbelief at the unmatched access they now possess to the greatest soccer player of all time.
“As normal as he acts and as nice as he is, it’s still every day for the players and everyone here a big shock that, yeah, he’s there,” said Pastora. “It was his initiative to come and share with the academy players. He knows he inspires and he knows the effect he has on the kids.”
As the Inter Miami community gathers Friday night at DRV PNK Stadium to honor their hero for “Noche d’Or," a celebration that includes a friendly match against New York City FC (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), those at the club feel the "Messi Effect" that's swept across MLS and North American soccer will shape academy players long-term – they have a golden opportunity to see how the iconic No. 10 operates on and off the field.
The academy project
Since their MLS introduction four years ago, Inter Miami have quickly developed academy players who signed homegrown contracts and now play alongside Messi in the first team, including Benjamin Cremaschi, David Ruíz, Noah Allen and more.
“You have to focus on key aspects like physical preparation, tactical fundamentals, technical improvement and the mentality to rise above difficult situations,” said Federico Higuaín, the former Columbus Crew and Inter Miami star who now coaches the Herons’ MLS NEXT Pro side. “As the player develops these key aspects, he will have a better chance to take the corresponding steps to get to the first team."
The types of names that currently make up that roster are motivation enough for any academy player to try their hardest to stand out. After all, it’s not just Messi’s presence, or Sergio Busquets’ or Jordi Alba’s. Homegrowns in the first team are clear examples of how the academy system is working.
“Our process is to form players from the academy in a way that they don’t regress and stay at the level they reach,” explained Higuaín.
Ask Pastora, and more players of such caliber are surely on the way.
“We have currently about eight players with the US [youth] national teams, and we have another 15 players in other national teams in Concacaf,” said Pastora, who joined Inter Miami long before Messi famously announced he’d be leaving French club Paris Saint-Germain to sign with the Herons this past summer.
In fact, Pastora was one of the organization’s first hires in 2018, acting as head coach for the Under-15 squad. Since then, he has worked his way to academy director, managing all teams from U-12s to U-19s, a role he took over this past August.
“We work hard at framing and identifying, recognizing who are the most talented and the most advanced. Once we bring them in, it’s about their personal development, their football development, about their academic development,” said Pastora.
“Our main goal is to develop professional people first in order to develop professional players,” he added. “We are focused on our culture and our environment, making sure they are polite, that they’re respectful, that they’re disciplined.”
The perfect guide
Messi joining the Inter Miami ecosystem has presented Pastora and Higuaín with the perfect example for their players to follow.
“It’s incredible because it’s the maximum expression inside the field and outside the field of what a professional should be like,” said Pastora. “Inside the field, he’s extremely competitive. He’s passionate and he’s committed. He’s confident and he enjoys himself every single day. He loves playing football and then he executes. Then, off the field, you get this respectful, professional, gentle, humble person.”
“He started moving from midfield and ended up scoring next to the box,” Higuaín said. “So, I asked the guys, particularly those who play the number 10 position, to look at what he did and realize that in that role you can create plays but you can also finish them. The question we asked them was ‘Who scored and where did that play begin for him?’ Well, it started in the middle of the field. A 16-year-old can understand and try that.”
As Messi’s MLS journey rolls on, Inter Miami will look to continue to benefit from his knack and affinity for creating unforgettable moments.
“Everything has changed, not only our club but the entire league,” said Higuaín. “For us, it represents what perfection is inside the field and outside of it. He gives those of us who are educators an opportunity to have the best soccer has to offer and also the possibility to use his presence to explain to players what it takes to play professionally.”