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Arguably the greatest soccer player of all time has announced he is heading to Inter Miami and Major League Soccer.

While no deal is signed, Messi announced he’s taking his talents to South Beach Fort Lauderdale this summer, leaving European soccer for the first time in his professional club career after becoming a legend at Barcelona and following that with two seasons at PSG.

Things will be — erm — different than what he’s used to. Here’s what Lionel Messi is walking into at Inter Miami and the 2023 MLS season.

Who are Messi’s new teammates?

Following the retirement of Gonzalo Higuain last winter, Inter Miami is short on star names for a global audience, but feature several players that will be familiar to MLS devotees.

Venezuela international forward Josef Martínez joined the club this winter after an electric five seasons with Atlanta United. He is a former MLS MVP (Player of the Year) and the fastest in league history to score 100 goals, though his output has dropped following a long-term knee injury suffered in 2020.

Other high-profile names on the roster include current U.S. international and former Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin as well as Mexico international midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro.

The back line features Ukraine international and former Shakhtar Donetsk stalwart Sergii Kryvtsov and Canadian international Kamal Miller. Ecuador international forward Leo Campana, formerly of Wolverhampton, is tied with Martinez as the team’s leading goal scorer this season. 

Brazilian midfielder Gregore has been their most important player, but the 29-year-old defensive midfielder is out injured until September. Fellow key Brazilian central midfielder Jean Mota is also out injured for months.

Phil Neville’s son, Harvey Neville, remains on the roster. David Beckham’s son, Romeo Beckham, is on the second team roster, returning on loan from Brentford B. Dual-national teenage midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, wanted by both Argentina and the United States, is the top rising talent. 

Miami has held room open on the roster for further additions. Sergio Busquets has had talks with Miami in the past and could join and other “Messi friends” could possibly join with some salary cap maneuvering.

There’s a salary cap? How could they afford Messi? 

While the potential deal for Lionel Messi to come to Inter Miami and MLS is complex and layered, adding him to the roster is not.

As a single entity league, all player contracts on MLS clubs run through the MLS league office, and the league administrates how much those teams can spend on player salaries…to a point. In 2023, each team in MLS is given a $5.2 million salary budget, but also provides numerous avenues for teams to “buy down” players’ budget charge so that in actuality their clubs’ total wage bill is significantly more. 

Among those avenues: MLS rules provide clubs with three designated player (DP) slots in which the club can pay a player whatever they want, but will hit the cap at the maximum senior budget charge ($612,500). Miami can open a DP spot for Messi with ease, moving midfielder Gregore off the designation by buying his salary budget charge down with allocation money. 

Further additions beyond Messi — for “Messi and friends” as folks in league circles have been referring to it for months — is a bit more complicated. With Gregore bought down, Messi will be Miami’s third DP, alongside Rodolfo Pizarro and Leo Campana. They have no slots left unless Pizarro were to leave.

They can still fit further additions under the salary cap without DP spots. The club acquired $1.6 million in allocation money in an April trade that sent Bryce Duke and Ari Lassiter to CF Montréal, which will be key in flexibility for further additions, though they may need to move out other players on the roster to facilitate. MLS clubs know Miami will be looking to shed salaries if further additions are coming, making departures a bit more difficult.

Miami have a one-time buyout they can use, which allows them to remove a player from their roster and his contract from their budget. Sergio Busquets has been linked with Miami for months. Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba have been floated as potential targets this week.

How is Inter Miami doing this season?

A confluence of factors including the aforementioned key injuries, remnants of roster sanctions (more on that later) as well as holding resources open for Messi and friends have contributed to Miami’s poor start to 2023. They currently sit bottom of the Eastern Conference with 15 points after 16 matches.

The MLS regular season has 34 matches. Messi won’t be eligible to debut until after the transfer window opens on July 5, by that point Miami will have played 20 regular season matches. The Athletic reported on Tuesday night that one possible date for Messi’s debut has been floated as July 21. If that’s the case, Messi won’t debut in league play until their 23rd match.

MLS features a playoff system in which the top nine teams in each conference qualify. Miami is currently six points below ninth place. This year there’s a play-in game between eighth and ninth place. Finishing in the top seven guarantees a team a best-of-three opening-round playoff series. Miami is eight points below seventh place.

Whenever Messi steps onto the pitch for the first time as a new Miami player, pressure for results will be immediate. Last summer, Italian national team wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi joined Toronto FC with the club in a similar state. They failed to help turn results around, missing the playoffs comfortably.

Who is Inter Miami’s coach?

A casualty of the poor results, Miami parted ways with head coach Phil Neville last week. The former Manchester United defender had been in charge for two-and-a-half seasons. 

Neville’s assistant Javier Morales took over as interim. Morales, a 43-year-old Argentine former professional, is highly regarded around the club but it is his first time leading first-team matches.

Morales began his playing career with Lanús in Argentina but is well known in North America thanks to his time in MLS, particularly at Real Salt Lake. Morales won the 2009 MLS Cup and was a two-time All-Star at the club.

Whether Morales will still be in charge when Messi arrives remains to be seen. The Athletic reported Tuesday night that Miami have had preliminary talks with Tata Martino, who was the manager of the Argentina national team manager from 2014-16 and Barcelona from 2013-2014.

Miami was already a sought-after job and with Messi officially joining, it becomes all the more attractive.

Where does Inter Miami play?

Inter Miami currently play at DRV PNK Stadium, an 18,000-capacity venue that is also the long-term home of their reserve team. The stadium is located in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami.

It’s not the most lavish home for Lionel Messi, but it will not be their long-term home.

Miami’s plans are to build another, bigger stadium at Miami Freedom Park. Inter Miami’s stadium will be the centerpiece of the development, a privately-funded, 25,000-seater stadium. The club has worked through local government hurdles for the project to break ground, but in April, the Miami City Commission approved a 99-year lease agreement to the Major League Soccer club’s owners for the ​​Miami Freedom Park project.

Mas said the project is expected to be finished for the 2025 season. 

Who owns Inter Miami?

While David Beckham is the public face of Inter Miami as a co-owner, he’s not the only member of the ownership group. Jorge Mas is the club’s CEO and managing owner. His brother, Jose Mas, is a co-owner.

The Mas brothers are local businessmen who grew up in Miami. Jorge Mas is the chairman of MasTec and Jose Mas is the CEO. MasTec is a Miami-based construction and engineering company founded by their father.

Messi joining MLS has a direct link to Beckham’s groundbreaking decision to come to the LA Galaxy. As part of Beckham’s deal came a clause that he could activate to become the owner of an expansion franchise one day. That’s how he became co-owner of Miami, who have now made their own groundbreaking deal to sign Messi.

What is Inter Miami’s history?

Inter Miami initially joined MLS in the 2020 season under grandiose expectations as a new glamor club in the league. They expected to be the home for stars and skip right to the front of the line in the league’s hierarchy, the same way Atlanta United (who joined in 2017) and LAFC (2018) did.

Both on and off the field, it hasn’t gone to plan. Playing only two matches before the COVID-19 pandemic sports as we knew them didn’t help either.

Miami whiffed on the promised “big names” ahead of their inaugural match, though did spend a reported $12 million to acquire Pizarro. He hasn’t been the leading star they hoped.

Star names came during the 2020 season, with former Higuain and former France World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi arriving in the fall, both following stints with Juventus. Matuidi was a failure on the pitch and Higuain was long viewed the same way.

The Matuidi signing aged worse because he was central to an MLS investigation over Miami’s incorrect reporting of those signings. Matuidi was added to the roster without using a DP spot, but Miami was found to have been paying him much more money than they reported. Matuidi was one of five players MLS found to be underreported.

As a result, in 2021, MLS announced Miami had to pay a $2 million fine, imposed a reduction of $2,271,250 in allocation dollars for the 2022 and 2023 seasons and their sporting director at the time (Paul McDonough) was suspended through the end of the 2022 season.

Miami has been hampered from a roster-building standpoint since and, after a rebuilding year in 2021 to start overturning the roster, Miami qualified for the playoffs in 2022.

(Photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)



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