Thursday, November 30 2023
Fans cheer and take pictures as Inter Miami star Lionel Messi smiles and prepares to inbound the ball

Inter Miami’s star Lionel Messi led his team past LAFC and is working on accomplishing what once seemed impossible, going from worst to first in MLS. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Just six weeks ago Inter Miami was the worst team in MLS. Maybe one of the worst in MLS history.

It hadn’t won in eight weeks, hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game all season and the crowds it drew to its temporary stadium, which wasn’t even in the same county as Miami, were among the smallest in the league.

Then the best player of all time showed up.

Miami hasn’t lost since Lionel Messi arrived in late July, going unbeaten in all competition, winning one tournament and advancing to the final of another. In 11 games with Messi and former Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, who followed him to MLS, the team is now averaging nearly three goals a game.

Read more: Hernández: Did L.A. fans overpay to see Lionel Messi? They watched the best in his prime

Inter Miami hasn’t just won, it’s dominated.

“That team is by far the best that I have faced in MLS,” LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini said Sunday after two Messi assists carried Miami to a 3-1 win over the reigning league champions before an overflow crowd at BMO Stadium. “By far.”

So just imagine how good the team will be when everyone gets comfortable here.

“I feel like we continue to grow along the way,” Busquets said in Spanish after Sunday’s win. “It has only been a short amount of time but in that short amount of time we have achieved a lot. We will continue to gain confidence and try to reach our objectives. We will take small steps. But we are headed in the right direction.”

One of those objectives is a league title, which would have been out of the question in the leagues Messi and Friends came from. Even if it were to win its final nine games and all other teams lost every game they played, Miami could finish no better than second in the league table. But the MLS title is decided in a playoff tournament and Miami is just eight points shy of qualifying for the postseason, where it would suddenly become the most dangerous team in the field.

“I would not want to be first in the East,” Chiellini said. “Because you’ll have to face Miami in the first round.”

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In less than two months Miami has gone from the team everyone wanted to play to the team no one wants to face. And Messi has had a lot to do with that, scoring 11 times in as many games and adding eight assists, making him responsible for nearly two-thirds of his team’s goals since his arrival.

“The best player in the world, what do you think he was going to do when he came here?” LAFC coach Steven Cherundolo said.

Miami’s success hasn’t been a fluke. In the last three weeks, it beat last season’s two MLS Cup finalists, outscoring the Philadelphia Union and LAFC 7-2 combined. It also knocked off FC Cincinnati, the league’s top team this season, on penalty kicks in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. And it hasn’t been a one-man show, either.

Shortly before Messi, Alba and Busquets joined the team, Miami sacked coach Phil Neville and replaced him with Tata Martino, who coached at Barcelona before guiding Mexico into last fall’s World Cup. Then shortly after adding Messi and Friends, Miami spent $17 million on transfer deals for U-22 players Facundo Farías, Tomás Avilés and Diego Gómez.

“They brought in six players in the summer window who have helped transform the team,” said former Galaxy captain Sacha Kljestan, now an analyst with Apple TV, MLS’ broadcast partner. “But the three main ones are Busquets, Messi and Alba, who have helped raised the level of all their teammates and just made everything better in Miami.”

Read more: The Lionel Messi circus is taking MLS by storm, but will it cost the league its soul?

Messi, a seven-time world player of the year, deservedly gets most of the attention.

“The arrival of Leo in this league, it’s very good. Not just for Miami but for the game and for the attention now everyone gives to the MLS,” Chiellini said. “We have huge potential. Now it’s time to show that potential.”

Sunday’s game, after all, was one the world was watching. The get-in price for a seat on the secondary market was an MLS-record $894, according to the online marketplace TickPick, while three pitch-side seats sold for $2,339 each, about the price of a Panama Canal cruise. In the stadium-record soccer crowd of 22,921 were celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio and Magic Johnson to Prince Harry and Selena Gomez.

It was the kind of high-wattage star power MLS has long dreamed of, but never attracted. The best player of all time can bring those kinds of changes. The question now is, can the league build on that momentum?

Messi is reportedly due $150 million over the next three seasons, nearly 10 times the record salary in a league with a frugal budget cap. Going forward MLS will have to find a way to expand payrolls without inviting financial ruin because more top European stars such as Antoine Griezmann, another former Barcelona star, are already planning their moves here.

Read more: Lionel Messi and Inter Miami put on show in a stunning victory over LAFC

They’re being drawn not just by Messi’s success, but by a lifestyle that affords a certain amount of privacy and anonymity in a country where soccer is a game, not a matter of life and death.

“We played, players like us, a lot of years with pressure and here we discover many other aspects of life that you can really enjoy,” said Chiellini, who captained Italian to a European championship before leaving for LAFC. “It’s really a good choice to come here.”

MLS has long fought for respect in international soccer, only recently casting off an unwanted reputation as a retirement league where aging stars go to cash a few final paychecks on their way out the door. Messi is different, of course. Although he’s 36, he led Argentina to a World Cup title last December before finishing his final season with Paris Saint-Germain as the only player in a top five European league to record 20 goals and 20 assists in all competition. The Saudis reportedly offered him $1.6 billion over three years, money he turned down to come to Miami.

“That team is by far the best that I have faced in MLS. By far.”

LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini said of Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami

Now Messi faces a new challenge. MLS history is littered with big-name players who have come in and dominated; few, however, have won championships.

French World Cup champion Thierry Henry averaged double digits for both goals and assists in his final four seasons with the New York Red Bulls, but he won just one trophy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 52 goals in 56 games with the Galaxy, but he won just one playoff game. Eleven games into his Inter Miami career, Messi is both winning and dominating.

“For me, dominating would be winning trophies year after year,” LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “That tells you who is the best or most effective player.”

So does turning the league’s worst team into its best.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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