“That’s what I try to teach my children is listen, believe and dream, believe and dream and work – and stay,” Jorge Mas said to The Athletic this summer.
“There’s so many things that deviate, and you can throw in the towel. There were so many times during this last year and a half or two years with the Messi thing that, ‘Ah, throw in the towel. It’s not going to happen.’ Et cetera, et cetera. Stay the course, stay the course, stay the course, stay the course.”
Lionel Messi announced he was leaving Paris to play for Inter Miami on June 7. On July 16 he – along with Sergio Busquets (Jordi Alba’s moment came shortly thereafter) – was officially unveiled. Five days later, Messi and Busquets made their debut in Leagues Cup vs. Cruz Azul. You all remember that free kick.
There was still more of the season left to play and that period didn’t stick quite so closely to the magical script, but who cares? The greatest soccer player of all time signed with Inter Miami, brought a coach, a bunch of friends and a few kids with him, won a trophy, and set the stage for the next few years.
Miami were a last-place punchline before all this happened. Now, you know who the most popular MLS club in the world is, the one with the most fans and biggest expectations going into 2024?
It’s Inter Miami. Jorge Mas, David Beckham et al stayed the course.
Formation & Tactics
Once Tata Martino took over, Miami’s default formation (when first-choice players were available) included a possession-heavy 4-3-3 single-pivot with Busquets pulling the strings, two energetic ball-winners in front of him, Messi playmaking as an inverted right winger, and both fullbacks bombing forward.
That is a recipe for throwing caution to the wind, and yeah, that’s how it tended to play out. Miami actually won the ball much higher up the field, and did so more often, when Messi – who is not much of a defensive presence at this point in his career – was on the field than they did without him (I’m only talking under Tata here, as the data under previous manager Phil Neville doesn’t illustrate much for us).
Without Messi, they dropped their line deeper and actually played more often out of a 3-5-2. They still tried to be possession-heavy, but none of the other options particularly distinguished themselves when it comes to picking final-third locks in possession. They all seem better suited to run off of the GOAT than to try to replace him to any degree.
I mean, aren’t we all, though?
What Messi did throughout Leagues Cup is the most magical thing I’ve ever seen happen in MLS. Even by his impossible standards, this should not have happened:
And yet there they were at the end of the first real Leagues Cup competition hoisting a trophy and just reveling in it, as they were right to.
Throughout it all, one of the most striking things was just how happy Messi looked. Those of us who’ve watched him closely over the years (and really, what soccer fan hasn’t?) hadn’t seen any of that from the past couple of seasons with PSG.
But those dark days were over.
Ok, maybe not entirely over. It took 13 games from Messi’s debut for Miami to lose their first contest, and when it came it was a 5-2 blowout loss to an Atlanta team they’d absolutely handled in the Leagues Cup. And then, three games later, they lost again – at home in the US Open Cup Final to Houston, which meant there’d be no double.
Two games after that they lost yet again, blown out 4-1 in front of a record crowd in Chicago, which pretty much closed the book on their playoff chances. It was officially, mathematically closed on October 7, when they lost 1-0 at home to Supporters' Shield champs FC Cincinnati.
The magic really did run out as the legs got more and more tired. Tata has to take some of the blame for that, though, as he needlessly rushed Messi back into the lineup on September 20 for a home game against Toronto, of all teams.
Messi was subbed off just past the half-hour (as was Alba) after re-aggravating an injury. Miami won 4-0 anyway.
They should’ve just rested him for that game.
Homegrown central midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi had a big rep among USYNT sickos entering the season, but struggled badly before Messi’s arrival and in the Cruz Azul game. It sure looked like Diego Gómez, the U22 Initiative signing who’s already a full Paraguay international, was going to take all his minutes.
Nope. Cremaschi bounced back immediately and took to a role as a midfield runner off of the brilliance of Messi and Busquets like a duck to water. The kid’s never going to be the type to control a game, or open it up himself, but he knows how to use the space others create with the ball, and how to create space for them off of it.
Think of him as the largest of the Aaronson brothers.
Just an incredible list of injuries during the first half of the year – Gregore and Jean Mota first among them – left too tall a hill to climb for them to make the playoffs. If they’d been just a little bit healthier, and five points better, it would all have looked so much different down the stretch.
Five Players to Build Around
- Messi (RW/10): GOAT.
- Busquets (DM): Still runs the show, but needs more runners around him than ever.
- Alba (LB): Still looks like Jordi Alba out there.
- DeAndre Yedlin (RB): Did so much work giving Messi an overlapping threat on one side, then busting it back to still be a defensive presence.
- Kamal Miller (CB): Acquired in one of the most lopsided trades in recent MLS history; Miami did the right thing and signed him to a long-term deal.
This is the most talented roster in the league – I could easily have expanded the above list to 15 names – but there’s some surgery that can still be done. Josef Martínez, sadly, looks cooked, and with Gregore and Jean Mota both expected to be fully healthy, there are suddenly too many high-paid players for too few spots in midfield.
The good news is that whoever they decide to move on from in central midfield will have significant value in MLS, which could bring home a bunch of General Allocation Money (GAM). Same for LB/LCB Chris McVey, who about 20 MLS teams could use but who Tata didn’t seem to rate.
The real question ends up being the No. 9. Leo Campana was good this year, and like the midfield corps and McVey, he’d have a lot of intra-MLS value if Miami decided they wanted to bring in a different No. 9 (perhaps a buck-toothed Uruguayan one). I have no inside info on this one, but I tend to think something like that is going to happen.
The other factor at play: virtually everyone I’ve spoken with around the league expects some additional cap/roster flexibility to come this winter. If/when that happens, you know Miami will be first in line to bring some of the sport’s biggest names to South Florida.