Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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Inter Miami’s preseason tour shows the growing pains of making the jump to ‘global brand’

The 2023 season ended in a deluge of Messi-mania even as Inter Miami missed the MLS playoffs. After a couple of months away, 2024 started off with a very real change in the club’s operational approach as they embraced a challenge unique to them compared to every other team in MLS: keeping sporting sensibility in mind amidst their financial windfall. 

As their MLS rivals are spending preseason playing against one another in domestic locales like Tucson or the Coachella Valley, Miami is in the middle of a sprawling global tour. Through their four games, the results have hardly seemed worth the jetlag.

Heading into the first game against El Salvador’s national team at its home stadium two weeks ago, Miami manager Tata Martino made clear that the biggest priority of the tour would be ensuring that all players would be fit and available for the start of the season. It was a refreshingly routine answer. Every other team in the league is using this time to prepare for the next season rather than to financially capitalize on scrimmages, so why couldn’t Miami do both?

Two factors make that mostly wishful thinking. The first is the very real impact of frequent long-distance flights on the human body, but the second is less corporeal: these opponents aren’t at a similarly nascent stage of their preparations. Aside from FC Dallas, these are either clubs in midseason form or national teams that are used to coalescing on the fly. Get these better-drilled groups to rally beyond one cause — specifically, taking the piss out of the Miami sideshow and treat their home fans to a win over Lionel Andrés Messi.

On paper, the first game against El Salvador was a safe way to start the tour with a win. This was a team that finished seventh of eight in CONCACAF’s 2022 World Cup qualifying, that played 13 games in 2023 but failed to win a single one (6 draws, 7 defeats), that has only one active member of its player pool who has scored even 10 international goals (shoutout to Nelson Bonilla). Surely, a group boasting Messi, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba could run laps around La Selecta.

Instead, the result was a scoreless draw. Beyond the parade of stars, the preseason was supposed to help key players like Facundo Farías understand their roles around less mobile teammates and be ready to spend the coming months covering plenty of ground across the United States and Canada. In the very first preseason game, Farías suffered a torn left ACL. His season has ended before Miami’s truly began.

The next game was the only that remotely resembled a typical MLS preseason fixture. They nicked a 1-0 win over Miami, keeping a lucrative attack silenced for the second consecutive match. And, in the process, promising U.S. international midfielder Benja Cremaschi suffered a sports hernia. Although his recovery timeline is quicker than Farías’ at two-to-three months, he will miss the start of the season all the same.

Games three and four of the tour were arguably the headliners, sending Inter Miami into the sport’s current epicenter of star-collecting projects. Although Miami finished 2023 near the bottom of the table, they would be propped up as an embodiment of the state of the league — again, playing their preseason against teams in the thick of the Pro League campaign.

If you want good news from the first game against Al Hilal, it’s that Miami remembered how to score goals, which is a massive help if you’re trying to sell shirts and tickets. Both Messi and Suárez chipped in, and Miami came back from a 3-1 deficit to make it a 3-3 game deep into the second half. The bad news? Mere seconds after Messi exited the field, Al Hilal used its throw-in to catch Miami in disarray, ultimately finding the match-winner before the Argentine could crack open his recovery elixir.

Onto Al Nassr for the most hyped non-competitive soccer match in recent memory. Al Nassr versus Inter Miami. Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi. The Saudi Pro League versus Major League Soccer. 

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Messi vs. Ronaldo becomes MLS vs. Saudi Pro League

Unfortunately, Ronaldo’s calf had other plans, with an injury ruling him out for the spectacle. While Messi has stopped short of tying his legacy to that of MLS, Ronaldo continues to keep the Saudi Pro League discourse going in full force. When Messi moved to MLS, he assured his fans that Al Nassr’s league was the supreme competition. In the week before Miami arrived for its friendlies, Ronaldo went further and said the Pro League had surpassed Ligue 1, a league Messi won in his two years with PSG that’s widely seen as the fifth of the big five leagues in Europe.

Perhaps in part due to his great rival’s absence, Messi also began the game from the bench. This wasn’t carefully scheduled recovery, either — it was because Messi left Wednesday’s training session with “discomfort” lingering from Monday’s friendly. Less than halfway into preseason, we’ve already kicked off “Messi injury watch” storylines. So much for Martino’s one hope for the month of travel. 

Well, if we can’t watch Messi and Ronaldo square off, why not use the game as a case study to see what the forever-narratively-conjoined icons have walked into? The discourse doesn’t have time to consider the differences between a team in preseason and one in the middle of a title chase. With Messi opening the friendly from the bench, let’s see how his new team stacked up to a Ronaldo-free Al Nassr.

Alright, a bad start to say the least. This didn’t even account for Sergio Busquets drawing immediate headlines for punching Al Nassr defender Nawaf Boushal in the face. The optics admittedly aren’t great from Miami’s perspective (and, by proxy, those of MLS) but let’s reiterate: these teams are at very different states of their annual ebb and flow, and Messi wasn’t even on the field to claw back some consolation goals. Let’s see what the second half brought. 

51’ goal: Al Nassr (Talisca, PK), 4-0
68’ goal: Al Nassr (Mohammed Maran), 5-0
73’ goal: Al Nassr (Talisca), 6-0
83’ substitution: Miami (Campana out, Messi in)

By the time Messi even touched the field, his team had been thoroughly played off of it. There’s zero sporting merit for putting a player who was scratched from the lineup with injury-related discomfort into a non-competitive match. The cynical side of this entire tour was clear for all to see as he checked in to pass the final minutes of this drubbing. 

You wouldn’t know it from the spectacle, as the fans in attendance loudly cheered and whistled for a full three minutes after he crossed the touchline. 

MLS teams often talk about wanting to be “global brands,” and Miami is now experiencing what a drastic move to become one entails. Fans weren’t there to see them, to become more accustomed with DeAndre Yedlin and Robert Taylor. Even seeing Suárez, Busquets and Alba in the starting lineup didn’t appease those in attendance. 

No, they’re there for one sole reason: to see a living legend. Will they still watch Miami matches in two years, once Messi’s contract is up? It all depends on the caché of whomever they replace him with. 

A couple of years ago, MLS issued guidance that preseason friendlies should not be streamed. Messaging has been mixed as to why the change was made, but in previous seasons, the streams were not watched by more than a few hundred fans and the only moments that went remotely viral were goalkeeping gaffes that were misbranded as “Peak MLS” on social media.

Fast-forward to the present, and 28 of the 29 teams are informing their fanbases about the preseason preparation with live-tweeting and in-house recaps on the team website. Meanwhile, the final five of Miami’s seven preseason friendlies are being streamed on Apple’s MLS Season Pass, with glitzy new camera angles and gushing commentary that ensure that the Herons — bad as their on-field showings have been — will be at the front of any discussion about the league. 

Previous banner clubs like Seattle and the LA Galaxy have signed designated players in recent weeks, and those announcements are buried on the league site by wall-to-wall coverage of Messi’s tour. Are we sure fans casually tracking Messi’s time in the league will realize MLS is a full-fledged league and that Miami isn’t the soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters?

Well, that comparison is a bit unfair. At least the Globetrotters always come out on top. 

If there’s a silver lining to be found from this Saudi Arabian sojourn, it’s that the injury ledger isn’t any longer for the 180 minutes of play. The 6-0 scoreline will hang around Miami’s global perception like a millstone for some time, and this single result will be often cited as fans across the world size up MLS’ caliber. Is it fair? Not at all, as would be the case for any single one-off friendly between any two teams. But reputations are seldom built on fair, nuanced criticism — and this is an argument that Miami opened itself up to by crafting its preseason in this way.

The upcoming dates in Hong Kong and Japan aren’t likely to carry as much buzz as the pair of Saudi Arabian friendlies, both due to the opponents’ global stature and the humbling Miami just endured. The seventh match of the tour has been billed as a feel-good finale, with Messi welcoming his boyhood club to his new North American home. The photo ops will bring a tear to Newell’s Old Boys’ fans and may be the few images from this tour that he looks back on with fondness.

The sense of homecoming will be felt even more by the rest of Miami’s squad, finally able to enjoy nights of sleep in familiar beds. Will they be any more prepared for the upcoming campaign after this tour? We won’t know for several months, but it’s hard to see the sporting benefits of the whole ordeal at this stage.

(Photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)


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