Why Lionel Messi and Inter Miami might not dominate MLS instantly

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JUNE 07: DRV PNK Stadium where Inter Miami professional soccer team plays games on June 07, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Reports say the team has signed Argentina legend Lionel Messi as a free agent.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Inter Miami, the team that Lionel Messi will join this summer, currently sit 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 almost two decades, and so when Agüero learned that his former teammate had left for Miami, he was happy. A bit surprised, he admitted on Argentine television on Thursday; but happy, because Messi will be happy, living without pressure and buscando la bliss with his family in sunny South Florida.

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

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

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

Inter Miami, for most of its fledgling existence, was an unbridled mess. It entered the league in 2020 with a lot of glamour, but was quickly tainted by shoddy football and clumsy, deceptive management. He underreported salaries to evade MLS spending limits – and the team he illegally built was terrible nonetheless.

In 2021, a league investigation found Miami broke the rules and resulted in a hefty fine, roster penalties and executive reshuffles. The team improved in 2022, but attracted the worst attendance in the league, and in 2023 fell back to the bottom of the table. He is on his third head coach in four seasons. It is, suffice it to say, not quite the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola.

But that’s what Messi will step into next month, more than halfway through his first of potentially four seasons in MLS. He’ll join a team that has just 15 points in 16 games, while compiling by far the worst expected goal differential in the league. FiveThirtyEight’s SPI model estimates that 25 of 29 MLS teams still have playoff odds of 35% or higher this season; but Inter Miami have a 5% chance, according to the model – which does not take into account Messi’s imminent arrival, but speaks to the scale of his task.

He will of course enter the league and immediately become its greatest player of all time. It’s a small giant yet remarkably close to the top of its game. It will monopolize the attention of opponents. His gravity will make his teammates better. And of course, he will blow the minds with the ball at his feet.

It will also probably enjoy more space and time than in France or Spain. La Liga is a consensus top-three league in the world; Ligue 1 is fifth; MLS, at best, ranks in the bottom of the top 10. Its preeminent team, LAFC, is roughly tied for the worst in La Liga, according to indexes based on data from global football clubs. His lists are very heavy. Its many mediocre veterans and starry-eyed youngsters will be outclassed by the GOAT.

And perhaps most importantly, its playoff system is absurdly forgiving. Inter Miami have been abysmal, truly abysmal for almost four months – and are just 6 points below ninth place in the conference, the bar they will need to clear to qualify for the playoffs. Miami’s title odds have risen to +1800, the seventh shortest, as all it has to do is finish among the top 18 teams in the league and then lead Messi’s genius through a few rounds at direct elimination.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 3: Lionel Messi Paris Saint-Germain celebrates with the Ligue 1 trophy after the Ligue 1 match 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 earn some material with Inter Miami. (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Which sounds simple. Or at least he did when Agüero jokingly described him for Messi this week. Messi laughed, according to Agüero, and replied: “Tenemos que entrar.” We have to come in.

But he won’t necessarily walk around in those playoffs, or through them. Superstars rarely do in this wonderfully weird (and wonderfully communal) league. David Beckham didn’t immediately lift the Galaxy. Thierry Henry has never made an MLS Cup final. More recently, and in the most analogous way, Lorenzo Insigne left Napoli to join Toronto, took a $14 million salary and brought friends from the Italian national team…and finished 27th out of 28 the year last.

MLS will be a step up for Messi, but it’s far from a recreational Sunday league that he can win on his own. He’s gotten younger and faster over the last half-decade. Its best teams are now better than the worst in Ligue 1.

And while yes, it’s ‘a league with fewer demands’ than La Liga, as Barcelona so brazenly put it in an official club statement, it has its own demands. It requires more air miles than any other domestic tour and a high tolerance for goofy quirks.

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

Messi’s biggest short-term hurdle, however, will be time.

Inter Miami may not be as bad as the first half of their season suggests. He deliberately built a roster with holes that Messi and his friends (Sergio Busquets? Others?) could fill, then saw that roster decimated by injuries waiting for them. When Messi arrives, the whole unit will improve instantly. (Duh.)

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

If anyone on the planet can undo it, of course Messi is the man. He has shaken up woke teams, emerging from nightmares, throughout his brilliant career, and as recently as November and December. What we don’t know, and we will soon know, is if he can do it in two months, surrounded by inferiority, on humid fall nights in Fort Lauderdale.

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