As the MLS season of 2023 draws toward a conclusion, four months after the arrival of its biggest star yet, Inter Miami fans will have seen enough of Lionel Messi in the flesh to be able to make at least some interim judgments on whether the former Barcelona and PSG man has done what he was signed to do. Inter do have a single game left at the time of writing – against Charlotte – but they sit so far outside the playoff spots that the result won’t make a difference. Their season’s story is written.
So what can we say about the part played in that story by Messi. After he arrived in July to tremendous fanfare, was it backed up with displays on the pitch? Arriving at the midpoint of 2023, did he at least deliver some optimism for the future? To answer that question, we need to look beyond the numbers he has put up, and consider the campaign as a whole.
The initial goal for any MLS team as a season begins is to be involved in the postseason, with a view to outlasting all opposition and carrying off the MLS Cup. Inter started the season with little hope of being the champion and barely a greater shot at even being an also-ran. Their form in spring bore out that expectation. From their first 22 games this season, they won five, tied three and lost 14. Their playoff hopes were not dead, officially, but they did have a large sticker on them saying “DNR”.
Since the arrival of the World Cup-winning captain, the numbers have told a different story. Four of their first six league games with him on the books were won. They’ve only lost once with him in the squad – and that defeat against FC Cincinnati came with him playing 35 minutes as a sub after an injury layoff, Given that 18 of the league’s 29 clubs progress to the postseason, Miami’s form after Messi’s signing has been playoff-quality at least.
If El Inter’s league form has been guardedly positive, then cup competitions have been better still. The intracontinental Leagues Cup saw the club’s pink ribbons attached to a senior trophy for the first time ever, as they topped their group and then sailed through the knockout stages before defeating Nashville in the final. They also appeared in the deciding game of the US Open Cup where they lost to Houston Dynamo; a disappointing end which nonetheless represented a huge step forward from their unimpressive start to life since they debuted in 2020.
So Miami have definitely seen an uptick in fortunes since signing the “Atomic Flea”, but correlation does not always imply causation. Have they improved since they signed him, or because they did? Those are two different things, and the latter bears a greater burden of proof. What we can say is that he hasn’t been a prolific scorer in the MLS, scoring just once in five starts – but goals don’t tell the whole story. When he’s been on the pitch, his mere presence and the caution of opposing defenders has created space for fellow attackers, which has always been a key element of his game.
In the Leagues Cup, his impact has been all the more demonstrable: seven appearances have seen him find the net ten times, and his nerveless form from the penalty spot set his side on the way to a shoot-out win in the final. There’s no separating the player and the achievement – without Messi, there is no way Inter would have won the competition. From a sporting point of view, he’s already demonstrated his continuing worth to any who doubted it.
Under his current contract, there are two more seasons in which Leo Messi is slated to play in the pink of Inter Miami. Nothing is guaranteed about the future, but what we can say is that the player brings a degree of nous and career experience that is unmatched in active soccer players, and perhaps in the history of the global game. While at 36 he’s no spring chicken, age is unlikely to affect him in the way it might other players. He’s never relied on searing pace or other athletic gifts, and the spatial awareness and off-the-ball movement upon which his game is built are things which improve with age.
Messi has already delivered a degree of success which had eluded Inter Miami before he arrived. There is every reason to believe that, managed properly, he could deliver greater prizes still before he ends his Stateside sojourn. What that means for Messi and Miami remains to be seen, but it will be fun to find out.
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