September 21, 2023

Why Lionel Messi and Inter Miami may not immediately dominate the MLS

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - JUNE 07: The DRV PNK stadium where the Inter Miami professional football team plays games on June 07, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Reports indicate that the team has signed Argentine legend Lionel Messi on a free transfer.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Inter Miami, the team Lionel Messi will join this summer, is currently in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi and Sergio Kun Agüero have been close friends for nearly two decades and when Agüero learned that his former teammate was heading to Miami, he was thrilled. A little surprised, he confessed on Argentinian TV on Thursday; but happy, because Messi will be happy, live without pressure and buscando la felicidad with his family in the South Florida sun.

However, Agüero couldn’t resist sending his friend a screenshot of the MLS Eastern Conference standings.

“Leo, listen to me,” Aguero said with a smile. Your team is behind! You better be eighth or ninth so you can make the playoffs.”

And that could be Messi’s first major challenge in America. He will be joining a league clearly weaker than the two he has graced in Europe, but a team languishing in last place.

Inter Miami has been a rampant mess for most of its burgeoning existence. It entered the league in 2020 with a lot of glamour, but soon stained itself with shoddy football and clumsy, deceitful management. It reported too few salaries to get around MLS spending limits – and the team it illegally put together was terrible nonetheless.

In 2021, an investigation by the league found Miami broke the rules, resulting in a hefty fine, roster penalties, and executive uproar. The team improved in 2022, but drew the worst attendance in the league, dropping to the bottom of the table in 2023. It is his third head coach in four seasons. Suffice it to say it’s not quite Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

But it’s what Messi is up against next month, more than halfway through his first of possibly four MLS seasons. He fits into a team that has amassed just 15 points from 16 games, while at the same time compiling by far the worst expected goal difference in the league. FiveThirtyEight’s SPI model estimates that 25 of 29 MLS teams still have a playoff chance of 35% or better this season; but Inter Miami has a 5% chance, according to the model – which doesn’t account for Messi’s imminent arrival, but does speak to the magnitude of his task.

He will, of course, walk into the league and immediately become the best player ever. He is a small giant who is still remarkably close to the top of his game. He will monopolize the attention of opponents. His gravity will make his teammates better. And of course he will blow the mind with the ball at his feet.

He will also probably enjoy more space and time than in France or Spain. La Liga is a consensus top three in the world; Ligue 1 is fifth; MLS is at the bottom of the top 10 at best. The leading team, LAFC, is roughly on par with La Liga’s worst team, according to data-driven indices from global football clubs. The grates are top heavy. The many mediocre veterans and starry-eyed youngsters will be outclassed by the GOAT.

And perhaps most importantly, the playoff system is absurdly forgiving. Inter Miami has been awful, really awful for nearly four months – and is just 6 points short of ninth in the conference, the bar it must set to qualify for the postseason. Miami’s title chance has risen to +1800, the seventh smallest, as it only needs to finish among the top 18 teams in the league and then drive Messi’s genius through a few knockout rounds.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 3: Lionel Messi Paris Saint-Germain celebrates with the Ligue 1 trophy after the Ligue 1 game between Paris Saint-Germain and Clermont Foot at Parc des Princes on June 3, 2023 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi has his work cut out for him if he hopes to win some hardware with Inter Miami. (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Which sounds simple. Or at least it did when Aguero jokingly outlined it for Messi this week. Messi laughed, according to Aguero, and replied: “Tenemos que entrar.” We have to go in.

But he won’t necessarily walk into those playoffs, nor through them. Superstars rarely do in this wonderfully strange league (and this wonderfully communal sport). David Beckham didn’t immediately lift the Galaxy. Thierry Henry never reached an MLS Cup final. More recently, and most analogously, Lorenzo Insigne left Napoli to go to Toronto, taking a $14 million salary and bringing some Italian national team friends with him… finishing 27th out of 28 last year.

MLS will be a step back for Messi, but it is far from a Sunday competition he can win on his own. It has gotten younger and faster in the past five years. The best teams are now better than the worst in Ligue 1.

And while yes, it is “a league with fewer demands” than La Liga, as Barcelona so brazenly said in an official club statement, it has its own unique demands. It requires more plane miles than any other domestic circuit and a high tolerance for wacky quirks.

“I think we’ve seen it’s a tough league,” Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman said Wednesday when asked about Messi. “You are in a lot of tight, contested matches. It won’t be unusual for him, but I’m sure boys will try to prove every time he’s on the ball that they can beat him or intercept a pass, to tell that story to their kids.

However, Messi’s biggest short-term obstacle will be time.

Inter Miami is arguably not as terrible as the first half of the season might lead you to believe. It purposely constructed a squad with gaps for Messi and his friends (Sergio Busquets? others?) to fill, then saw that team decimated by injuries as it waited for them. When Messi arrives, the whole unit will immediately improve. (Duh.)

But first there will be more waiting and probably more losses. Messi will make his debut in mid-July at the earliest, after which the MLS will break for the Leagues Cup, a joint venture with the Mexican Liga MX. Messi probably won’t play his first MLS game until August 20, after which he has just 12 games – a third of the season – to undo Miami’s mess.

Of course, if anyone on the planet can undo it, Messi is the man. He has shaken teams up, from nightmares, throughout his glittering career, and even in November and December. What we don’t know, and we’ll soon find out, is if he can do it in two month
s, surrounded by inferiority, on damp fall nights in Fort Lauderdale.

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