National Writer: Charles Boehm

What would await Lionel Messi? MLS & Inter Miami CF explained


So, you’re a big fan of Lionel Messi, and now that he’s poised to write the next chapter of his glittering career in the United States (and Canada!) with Inter Miami CF, you’re wondering what all that’s about?

If you need some catching-up, worry not: We’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick-hitting rundown of what you need to know about the GOAT’s likely new stable.

What is MLS, anyway?

Let’s start with the basics.

Major League Soccer is the top-flight professional league in the US and Canada. Launched in 1996 with 10 teams and now comprising 29 clubs across the continent with a 30th set to take the field in San Diego in 2025, its creation is a legacy of the 1994 World Cup, explicitly mandated by FIFA to bring the apex of the beautiful game back to these shores after more than a decade without a top-tier pro competition. There’s an Eastern Conference (that’s where Miami are) and a Western Conference, with 15 teams in the former and 14 in the latter.

And, uhh, yeah – Kun Agüero is right. More on that later.

A unique hybrid of North American sports norms and soccer leagues found elsewhere, MLS DOES have playoffs – the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, to be exact – to determine its annual league champion, and does NOT have promotion/relegation. There is also a prize awarded to the top finisher in the regular season, dubbed the Supporters’ Shield, because supporters are the ones who created and advocated for the concept in the league’s early years.

Due to climate and a number of other reasons, it runs on a spring-to-fall schedule: The current 2023 campaign kicked off in late February and the final day of the regular season, dubbed Decision Day, is on Oct. 21. Each team plays 34 games (it’s an unbalanced schedule) and the top nine finishers in each conference qualify for the postseason, which runs for several weeks, culminating in the MLS Cup presented by Audi final on Dec. 9 (read format details here).

What about other competitions?

There are several!

The top few teams in MLS (plus the US Open Cup and Canadian Championship winners, more on those in a moment) compete the following season in North America’s Champions League, which as of 2024 is actually no longer called the Concacaf Champions League but the Concacaf Champions Cup, a rebranding that coincides with its expansion to a 27-team tournament. CCC uses a straight knockout bracket with two-legged home-and-away series until the final, which will now be a one-off match.

Then there’s the US Open Cup, the United States’ version of the FA Cup, a 109-year-old tournament open to teams from all levels from amateur to pro. (Canada has a much younger equivalent, the Canadian Championship, which that nation’s three MLS sides – CF Montréal, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC – take part in.)

MLS teams generally begin Open Cup in late spring. This year’s quarterfinals just took place this week, and to reach the semifinals for the first time ever. Miami visit MLS-leading FC Cincinnati in that fixture on Aug. 23 and yes, Messi should be able to take part if fit and healthy. The other semifinal is Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo FC.

A far newer addition to the North American calendar is Leagues Cup, which this year for the first time includes all 29 MLS clubs and the 18 member clubs of Liga MX, Mexico’s top flight. This tournament has a group stage followed by a knockout phase and kicks off in late July; the neighboring/rival leagues will pause their domestic schedule for a month to give it full focus.

Should Messi complete his signing, obtain his ITC and get match fit in time, he might make his Inter Miami debut on Leagues Cup’s opening night (July 21), which features the Herons hosting Mexican giants Cruz Azul at DRV PNK Stadium (a debut date isn't yet confirmed). Winning either Leagues Cup or Open Cup would earn a CCC berth.

Wait, Herons? DRV PNK? I’m lost...

Yes, now’s a good time to delve into Messi’s would-be new club.

Formally named Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami, Inter Miami, or IMCF for short, are a young organization, only taking the field in 2020. The informal nickname “Herons” comes from the two birds on their crest, a tribute to the region’s tropical ecology chosen specifically because they’re native to the area, unlike the pink flamingos who also flock to Biscayne Bay and adjacent waterways.

The distinctive pink, black and white color scheme – or “Rosanegra,” to use Spanish-language soccer convention – is influenced by the city’s sleek style as well as its colorful sunrises and sunsets. It makes Miami one of the few pro teams in North America to wear pink.

“David and I wanted to start with black and white," CEO and managing owner Jorge Mas told ESPN when the brand was unveiled. "But we also wanted a color that we could own, and pink was it.”

The concept of an MLS team in South Florida existed long before IMCF. In fact, they’re the second such club in South Florida.

Miami Fusion FC took the pitch in 1998, MLS’s third year, and played at Lockhart Stadium, the historic ground in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that once stood on the same spot now occupied by Inter Miami’s practice and academy facility, the Florida Blue Training Center, and temporary, modular venue, DRV PNK Stadium. The Fusion won the 2001 Supporters’ Shield but alas, were shuttered along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny mere months later, as MLS contracted amid a low period.

Miami’s main rivals also live 200 miles up the Florida Turnpike: Orlando City SC.

OK, so what about the future?

League leaders always desired to return to the diverse, soccer-mad Miami metropolitan area. That began to move towards concrete reality in 2013, when IMCF co-owner David Beckham called time on his playing career and made it known he wished to exercise a unique clause in his groundbreaking contract with MLS and the LA Galaxy that granted him discounted access to a future expansion club.

Five years later, Miami was officially granted an expansion slot, with Beckham joined by local businessmen Jorge and José Mas and other investors. A who’s-who of celebrities extended their congratulations, including none other than Leo Messi himself, who shared a video saying, “Congratulations. I wanted to wish you all the best in this new project, this new role for you. Who knows, maybe in a few years you can give me a ring.”

The Herons set up shop at DRV PNK while navigating the long, winding path to securing a permanent downtown stadium – a central plank of MLS’s return to SoFla. That breakthrough officially arrived last year when city commissioners approved Miami Freedom Park, a $1 billion mixed-use project near Miami International Airport anchored by a 25,000-seat stadium for IMCF.

The privately-funded project also includes 58 acres of public parks and green space, a tech hub, restaurants and shops, and soccer fields for the community. Construction processes began this spring and club officials are hoping it opens at the start of the 2025 MLS season.

Who else is on Inter Miami?

Thanks to the city’s potent global allure, terms like ‘big club,’ ‘glitzy’ and ‘sexy’ have been attached to Miami from the jump. The resulting expectations have been difficult to meet. Messi would arrive at a club currently struggling in the Eastern Conference, though not too far removed from a postseason spot (the field can be forgiving). Related: Miami are still recovering from sanctions imposed by the league for violating MLS’s salary budget and roster guidelines with acquiring Blaise Matuidi and several other players during their 2020 expansion season.

Phil Neville and respected chief soccer officer/sporting director Chris Henderson shaped an underperforming squad into a playoff participant last year. But the retirement of Messi’s former Argentina teammate Gonzalo Higuaín – who rallied from two disappointing seasons to lead the team with 16 goals in 2022 – left a scoring vacuum that his successor Leonardo Campana and winter reinforcement Josef Martínez, a legend at Atlanta United, have thus far struggled to fill.

Yet there is talent on the roster. While currently sidelined by long-term injuries, central midfielders Gregore and Jean Mota made for a sturdy engine room in 2023. Young homegrowns Benja Cremaschi, David Ruiz and Ian Fray are the vanguards of a promising academy pipeline. Goalkeeper Drake Callender just earned a US men’s national team call-up. DeAndre Yedlin, Sergii Kryvstov and Kamal Miller are international-level defensive veterans.

And of course, there’s always the transfer market. This week’s flood of rumors have linked IMCF to Messi’s current or former teammates Ángel Di María, Sergio Busquets, Luis Suárez and Jordi Alba. Many more big names will undoubtedly be linked to the Herons, even if fitting them onto the roster would require salary-budget gymnastics by Henderson, who knows from his time with the Seattle Sounders that unsung role players can be almost as important in MLS.

OK, so who’s the manager?

Great question! Short answer: TBD. Miami parted company with Neville – the second head coach in club history after inaugural boss Diego Alonso – on June 1. Former Real Salt Lake great Javier Morales is the interim leader, though it’s his first year as a first-team coach after building his skill set at the academy level and a permanent hire is expected soon.

Tata Martino, previously Messi’s manager at Barcelona and the Argentine national team, is reportedly a leading candidate for that. He knows MLS well from his dazzling stint in charge of Atlanta United, whom he led to an MLS Cup 2018 title, and that sort of swashbuckling attacking soccer would be welcomed at IMCF. 

As The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter noted this week, over Neville’s two-plus years in charge Miami ranked last in MLS on a per-game basis in expected goals, shots, chances created and touches in the opponent’s penalty box.

So, what are Leo’s chances?

Should the move be completed, it’s been a long time since Messi faced a task like this, at least in year one. He’d have to be ready to rock right from the start if Miami are to advance out of a Leagues Cup group that includes Cruz Azul and Atlanta. The Herons are just two wins away from Open Cup glory, though it’ll take beating Cincinnati, who are perfect at home this season.

This year’s expansion of the playoff field to 18 teams does offer a more forgiving path to the postseason. The blueprint for the dramatic stretch-run surge this requires is probably D.C. United 2018, when Wayne Rooney arrived in July and inspired a 12-4-4 turnaround after the Black-and-Red had gone 2-7-5 without him. But with their rugged midsummer schedule, IMCF could be behind the 8-ball before Messi even makes his debut. (Find a fuller breakdown of that picture here.)

The GOAT’s landing could push his new teammates to become greater than the sum of their parts, recapturing peak form when combining with Messi. With tickets for every IMCF match instantly a hot commodity, they would constantly play in front of big, spirited crowds. Yet a white-hot spotlight would also be trained on everyone around the squad now, with a degree of scrutiny few of them have ever experienced.

Whatever transpires, it figures to be destination viewing.

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