Why Lionel Messi and Inter Miami might not dominate MLS instantly

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - JUNE 07: The DRV PNK stadium where the professional soccer team Inter Miami plays games on June 07, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Reports indicate the team has signed Argentine legend Lionel Messi as a free agent. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi and Sergio Kun Agüero have been close friends for nearly two decades, and so, when Agüero heard that his former teammate was bound for Miami, he was happy. A bit surprised, he admitted Thursday on Argentine TV; but happy, because Messi will be happy, living pressure-free and buscando la felicidad with his family in the South Florida sunshine.

Agüero, though, 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 get it to 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 that is markedly weaker than the two he graced in Europe, and a team that’s languishing in last place.

Inter Miami, for most of its nascent existence, has been an unbridled mess. It entered the league in 2020 with plenty of glamor, but quickly stained itself with shoddy soccer and clumsy, deceitful management. It underreported salaries to evade MLS spending limits — and the team it illegally constructed was nonetheless terrible.

In 2021, a league investigation found that Miami broke rules, and resulted in a hefty fine, roster sanctions and executive shakeups. The team improved in 2022, but drew the worst attendance in the league, and in 2023 has slumped back to the bottom of the table. It is onto its third head coach in four seasons. It is, suffice to say, not quite Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

But it’s what Messi will walk into next month, more than halfway through his first of potentially four MLS seasons. He’ll slot into a team that’s gleaned just 15 points from 16 games, all 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 better this season; but Inter Miami has a 5% chance, per the model — which doesn’t account for Messi’s impending arrival, but does speak to the size of his task.

He will, of course, walk into the league and immediately become its greatest-ever player. He is a diminutive giant still remarkably close to the top of his game. He will monopolize opponents’ attention. His gravity will make his teammates better. And of course, he will boggle minds with the ball at his feet.

He’ll also likely enjoy more space and time than he did in France or Spain. Spain's La Liga is a consensus top-three league in the world; France's Ligue 1 is fifth; MLS, at best, ranks toward the bottom end of the top 10. Its preeminent team, LAFC, is roughly on par with La Liga’s worst, according to data-driven indexes of global soccer clubs. Its rosters are top-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 has been dreadful, truly dreadful through almost four months — and is just 6 points below ninth place in the conference, the bar it will have to clear to qualify for the postseason. Miami’s title odds have jumped to +1800, the seventh-shortest, because all it has to do is finish among the league’s 18 best teams, then ride Messi’s genius through a few knockout rounds.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 3: Lionel Messi Paris Saint-Germain celebrate 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 win some hardware with Inter Miami. (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

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

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

MLS will be a step down for Messi, but it’s far from a Sunday rec league that he can single-handedly win. It has gotten younger and quicker over the past half-decade. Its best teams are now better than Ligue 1’s worst.

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

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

Messi’s tallest short-term obstacle, though, will be time.

Inter Miami is arguably not quite as dreadful as the first half of its season would suggest. It deliberately constructed a roster with holes that Messi and friends (Sergio Busquets? Others?) could fill, then saw that roster decimated by injuries while it waited for them. When Messi arrives, the entire unit will instantly improve. (Duh.)

But first, there will be more waiting, and likely more losing. Messi won’t debut until mid-July at the earliest, at which point MLS will break for the Leagues Cup, a joint venture with Mexico’s Liga MX. Messi likely won’t play his first MLS game until Aug. 20, at which point he’ll have just 12 matches — a third of the season — to undo Miami’s mess.

If anybody on the planet can undo it, of course, Messi is the man. He has jolted teams awake, out of nightmares, throughout his glittering career, and as recently as November and December. He can surely do it across the United States, and on humid autumn nights in Fort Lauderdale, eventually. What we don’t know, and will soon find out, is whether he can do it surrounded by inferiority over two short months.