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Can Messi Lead Inter Miami to the MLS Title?

Lionel Messi
(Credit: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Can Messi Lead Inter Miami to the MLS Title?

Earlier this year, Inter Miami was in absolute shambles. There is just no other way to put it. Under former manager Phil Neville, Miami was one of the worst teams in the MLS. The club had only won five of its 22 MLS games and was sitting on only 18 points, making Inter Miami the last-placed team in the MLS’s Eastern Conference.

Everything changed on June 7. Lionel Messi, the greatest professional soccer player of all time (don’t come at me on this one), had left PSG and was moving to Inter Miami. David Beckham had finally delivered on his promise of delivering stars to the young MLS franchise.

Things seemed to change instantly. Soon after, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba joined Messi in South Florida. Not only that, Tata Martino was announced as Inter Miami’s new head coach. For those who do not already know, Martino had a superb previous managerial stint in the MLS with Atlanta United, leading the club to an MLS title in 2018. He also had managerial stints with Barcelona and the Argentina national team, meaning he had previous experience working with Busquets, Alba and, of course, Messi.

All of a sudden, this did not feel like a team rotting away at the bottom of the MLS. Inter Miami was suddenly the most exciting team in the U.S., bringing global attention not just to Miami but to the entire league. This excitement was all off the field, however. The real test to see if Messi could change Inter Miami would come on the pitch during the 2023 Leagues Cup.

Leagues Cup Success

Before taking the pitch in an MLS match for his Inter Miami debut, Messi instead made his first appearance in the now-famous pink Inter Miami jersey in the 2023 Leagues Cup.

For those who were worrying about how Messi would perform for Miami, those doubts were quickly put to rest. He came off the bench in the club’s opening Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul, and with the game tied 1-1, Messi decided he would mark his arrival in the U.S. with an absolute peach of a freekick that gave Inter Miami the 2-1 victory.

This was a sign of the magic to come. Following the Cruz Azul victory, Messi and Inter Miami picked up steam, defeating Atlanta United to win the group and knocking out fellow Florida club Orlando City in the Round of 32.

A superb comeback at FC Dallas with two goals from the man himself led to a penalty shootout victory for Miami. Despite being down 3-1 and 4-2, Inter Miami found a way to win, and following this game, it felt like the Leagues Cup was Inter Miami’s to win.

They did not disappoint, breezing their way through the next couple of games and reaching the final against Nashville SC. Messi, of course, opened the scoring. Nashville fought back, however, and the game found its way to penalties. It took 11 kicks from the spot to finally separate the two, with Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender denying Nashville goalkeeper Elliot Panicco‘s kick to give Inter Miami its first-ever trophy.

In seven Leagues Cup matches, Messi scored 10 goals. While other players like Robert Taylor, Josef Martínez and youngster Benjamin Cremaschi all had impressive performances, Messi was truly the star of the show, and Inter Miami looked like an entirely new team.

Mountain to Climb in the MLS

Inter Miami’s success in the Leagues Cup made the club’s failures before Messi’s arrival seem like a distant memory. However, the Leagues Cup is, in reality, just a distraction from what truly matters. Messi was brought to South Florida to win the club an MLS title, and unfortunately for him, he has an enormous mountain to climb.

Inter Miami currently sits in 15th place (last place) in the MLS’s Eastern Conference with only 18 points. In 22 matches, they have won five, drawn three and lost 14. For comparison, FC Cincinnati is currently in first place in the Eastern Conference with 51 points — a 33-point difference.

Winning the MLS’s Supporter Shield, the trophy given to the team with the most regular season points, is out of the question for Inter Miami. However, Messi was brought in to win the MLS Cup, and Inter Miami does not need to get first place to win the MLS Cup. All they have to do is qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs and then replicate their magic from the Leagues Cup during the playoffs.

To qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, Inter Miami will need to finish as one of the top nine teams in the Eastern Conference. The top seven teams get a bye to round one of the playoffs, while the teams in eighth and ninth position qualify for the wild card round. Although teams in the wild card will have to play an extra game, all teams in the playoffs have a reasonable shot at winning, and Inter Miami has already shown how dangerous they are in knockout stage games.

The Chicago Fire is currently in ninth place with 32 points from 24 games. This is 14 points more than Inter Miami. Keep it in mind, however, that Chicago has played two games more than Miami. If Miami wins these two games in hand, the gap is only eight points.

Until they win these games, however, they will still be 14 points behind. That is still nearly five games behind where they want to be. If Inter Miami wants to make the playoffs, they will likely need to win the majority of their 12 remaining regular season games. This includes a tough road trip to LAFC, a home match against high-flying FC Cincinnati and other games against MLS teams currently in playoff positions.

Needless to say, Messi and Inter Miami have their work cut out for them to just reach the MLS Cup Playoffs, let alone win the whole thing.

Can They Do It?

While Messi and Inter Miami do have a mountain to climb, it is possible. It will be difficult for sure, but this Inter Miami team with Messi, Busquets and Alba looks unbeatable at the moment.

Since these three have arrived, Inter Miami has gone unbeaten. They won all seven matches in the 2023 Leagues Cup and just beat FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in Cincinnati.

It is not just these three that are performing, either. Robert Taylor is in the form of his life right now while other players in all areas of the field are also performing at a new level. While Messi is definitely the highlight of the Inter Miami renaissance, Tata Martino has the rest of the squad motoring right now as well.

Do I think Inter Miami will win all 12 of their remaining MLS games? No. Do I think they will go unbeaten in their 12 remaining games? No.

What I do think, however, is that it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Inter Miami hops from last place in the Eastern Conference into a playoff spot. Again, it will be a big ask, but no one has had an answer for Messi and Co. yet. If they keep performing the way they are, then I see no reason why Inter Miami can not reach the MLS Cup Playoffs this year.

Realistically, however, their form will likely drop and they will lose valuable points that might prove to be costly. It would only be human of them after all. For this reason, I do not think they will ultimately make the playoffs, even though it certainly is possible.

I will say this, however. While I think it will be difficult for them to close the 14-point gap they are currently facing, if Inter Miami does make the playoffs, I am backing them to win. They have already shown they have the right mentality and the quality to win multiple knockout stage games. And like I mentioned above, they also just beat the MLS’s Eastern Conference leaders FC Cincinnati on the road in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.

Messi has been given a mountain to climb to get Inter Miami into the playoffs. If anyone can do it, however, it is him, and if Miami does make the playoffs, then I am 100% backing Messi to lead David Beckham’s club to glory.

Messi’s MLS journey begins on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls. Let’s see how much more magic he has in that legendary left foot of his.

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