All eyes on Lionel Messi, Inter Miami as MLS’s 29th season kicks off

The new MLS season begins Wednesday night with a single game between — surprise! — Lionel Messi’s star-studded Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake in South Florida.

Messi is clearly MLS’s main attraction heading into the first full year of the GOAT’s stateside stay.

And after making a splash beyond the league’s wildest dreams last season when, just six months after leading Argentina to the 2022 FIFA World Cup title, Messi’s string of spectacular goals dominated social media timelines and helped the Herons win the inaugural Leagues Cup, soccer fans everywhere are wondering what the living legend can do for an encore in 2024.

Despite missing the playoffs last season, Inter Miami is the bookies’ pick to hoist MLS Cup. That’s the case even after a whirlwind preseason tour during which the Herons circumnavigated the globe but produced just one win in seven friendlies.

“It’s a work in progress,” Herons goalkeeper Drake Callender told FOX Sports after Miami played to a 1-1 tie with Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys in its final tuneup. “Once the season starts, we have to be a lot sharper and on the same page in how we defend.”

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They also must keep Messi healthy. Unstoppable as the 36-year-old was upon his arrival, Inter Miami eventually fell back to earth down after injuries forced Messi to miss several crucial matches down the stretch. The club that sat dead last in the MLS standings when Messi announced his stunning decision to join the Herons ended up 27th among the circuit’s 29 teams.

Messi won both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Best Men’s Player award for 2023 nonetheless. But he’s now nursing a persistent adductor ailment, one serious enough that he played sparingly during the preseason. Messi even sat out an exhibition in Hong Kong, causing a literal international incident for which he has since had to publicly apologize.

Still, Miami’s status as MLS Cup favorites this season is also understandable. In addition to having the best player ever, Tata Martino’s team added Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez this winter to a squad that already featured two other former FC Barcelona standouts in Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.

“In the long run, starting the year with good competition will help us,” Callender said when asked if the preseason jaunt has left the Herons exhausted before the new campaign even gets underway.  “We may have had some adversity during the tour, but I think it’s good preparation for what we’re going to experience during the year.”

Suárez, 37, scored just once during the preseason and has been limited by a sore knee. Callender isn’t worried about that, either. “Any time a player joins a new team, it takes time to mesh,” the U.S. men’s national team backstop said of Suárez, who lit up the Brazilian league before rejoining Alba, Busquets and Messi in Miami. “It’s early. He knows how to score.”

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Defending is probably the bigger concern for Martino’s side. To free up roster space and salary budget under league rules, the Herons had to offload several proven veterans this offseason. Stout Canadian center back Kamal Miller was traded to the Portland Timbers last month. On Midfield destroyer Gregore was transferred to Botafogo in his native Brazil on Monday.

Then there’s the fact that Messi, Suárez, Callender and other key contributors could miss several weeks of MLS games while representing their countries at the Copa América this summer. It also remains to be seen how Messi and his fellow 30-somethings handle a full season of the notoriously grueling travel in MLS, a league governed by rules designed to promote parity between clubs. 

Add it up, and the the truth is that nobody knows if Inter Miami will finish first, last or somewhere in between in 2024. What’s indisputable is that Inter Miami matches will be destination viewing however Year 2 of the Messi Experiment shakes out. 

“His arrival put the eyes of the world on MLS,” MLS VP Camilo Durana, who manages the league’s landmark, $2.5 billion streaming deal with Apple TV, said of Messi in an interview. “From an MLS Season Pass perspective, we are able to see how often the first game people view is an Inter Miami game. It’s contributed an enormous amount to subscriptions, not just in the United States, but around the globe.

“We’re thrilled that Messi chose to continue his career in Major League Soccer,” Durana added. “We’re learning about the enormous audience he brings, what they’re looking for, and how we can deliver that to them while exposing them to everything else about MLS and the other amazing players we have.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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