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Can Messi clean up the Inter Miami CF mess?

Since joining Major League Soccer in 2018, Inter Miami CF have been a mess. The David Beckham-owned soccer franchise wasn’t helped by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet many of the club’s wounds have been self-inflicted.

The club was fined $2 million in 2021 for violating MLS’s salary budget and roster rules. There were issues with nepotism, as Beckham hired friend, former teammate, and Salford City co-owner Phil Neville as head coach in 2021.

Neville was sacked in June of this year, with most fans believing it was one of the first moves to appease Inter Miami’s newest signing. That new signing is, of course, Lionel Messi, who arrives in South Florida with the mission of turning around a club that started play just three years ago.

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Three seasons of underachieving

With all the issues Miami have experienced, it is difficult to believe the club only started playing in MLS in 2020. The Herons’ first season in MLS was a write-off. Just weeks after debuting, the season was paused due to the pandemic.

The 2021 season was the club’s first full season, but it didn’t go well. Even with ex-European players like Gonzalo Higuain, Ryan Shawcross, and Kieran Gibbs, Miami finished 20th overall in the MLS standings, missing out on the playoffs.

The 2022 season was better, and Neville led the team into the MLS Playoffs. Yet, the team’s 14W-6D-14L record showed deficiencies of the MLS postseason in which a team with as many wins as losses can qualify. Inter Miami had a rude awakening to playoff life, being eliminated by New York City FC 3-0.

Messi isn’t just joining an underachieving team more than midway through the current campaign. The Argentine has signed for a club, with just 18 points from 22 games this season. Inter Miami are the worst team in the MLS overall points table. With just three wins this term, Miami averaged a mere 0.82 points per match, scoring 22 goals.

The Herons are currently 12 points off the final playoff place in MLS’s Eastern Conference, which is occupied by DC United. Miami have 12 matches left to secure enough points to qualify for the postseason.

As it stands, the Herons will likely need 2.0 points per match to qualify for the MLS Playoffs. It won’t be easy since Miami have only collected 0.82 points per match this term. Inter Miami do have at least one game in hand over the teams in front of them.

Making Messi Comfortable

Inter Miami will start the Leagues Cup competition on July 21 against Mexico’s Cruz Azul. The Leagues Cup is a month-long tournament between MLS and Liga MX teams.

The MLS regular season will take a break during this time, meaning Messi won’t play a league match for Inter Miami until August 20. The League Cups will give Miami at least three matches to make Messi comfortable, almost like a preseason.

Comfort is exactly what Inter Miami are trying to provide their new superstar. After two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain in which the supporters quickly grew tired of the Argentine’s perceived lack of effort, Inter Miami want Messi to feel at home.

Neville’s dismissal in June paved the way for Messi’s former Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino in the Miami dugout. Martino, an MLS Cup winner in 2018 with Atlanta United, coached Messi at Barcelona in 2013-14.

Although it was a disappointing season, with the only piece of silverware coming in the Supercopa de Espana, Messi got to know his compatriot. Martino managed the Argentina national team after his time at Camp Nou. Messi knows Martino well and will feel relaxed playing for him in South Florida.

It isn’t just the manager that Miami want Messi to feel comfortable with. The club has signed Messi’s former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets. The 34-year-old midfielder will be used to protect Messi in the middle of the park, allowing the Argentine to be the creative spark in attack. Miami are also trying to add former Barcelona player Jordi Alba, although a deal for the 34-year-old left-back is far from complete.

Messi will need time to adapt

Messi may have Busquets by his side, but MLS will be far different from anything the “Flea” has ever experienced. The league’s quality and standards are far from La Liga and Ligue 1 levels. Many of the players competing in MLS are signed due to their athletic attributes. It is a physical league.

Having played at the very top of the game for so long, Messi isn’t likely to accept poor play from teammates. Inter Miami’s lack of quality in the final third could quickly become the bane of Messi’s existence.

The club signed several strong MLS quality players in anticipation of Messi’s arrival. Josef Martinez, a former MLS Golden Boot winner, signed from Atlanta United in the offseason. Miami also signed Ecuadorian international Leonardo Campana on the back of a strong loan spell at the club last season.

The hope is Messi will make Martinez and Campana better, creating goalscoring chances for the pair. There is no doubt Messi will create chances. The question is, will Miami’s forwards score them?

Inter Miami rank last in MLS in expected goals at 20.9. The Herons also rank last in MLS for expected assists with 13.4. Meanwhile, they have the fifth-highest expected goals against at 34.3. Goalkeeper Drake Callender has made the second-most saves in MLS (85) and averages 3.9 saves per match.

His 70.6% save rate isn’t great, Inter Miami have MLS’s lowest clean sheet percentage at just 9.1%. Callender’s high number of saves shows that opponents are cutting through Miami’s defence too easily.

Martino prefers to use a 4-2-3-1 formation. Messi will play as the team’s No 10, with Martinez or Camapana playing in front of him. Busquets and captain Gregore will likely play as double pivots behind him to protect the defence. Messi’s arrival won’t fix all of Miami’s problems, but his inclusion in the starting XI will take some of the pressure off Miami’s battered defence.

The 2023 season could simply be a write-off. Beckham experienced some poor seasons with LA Galaxy before winning the first of two MLS Cups in 2011 – his fifth season in Los Angeles. Messi may need time to clean up the Miami mess.

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