Twenty-nine Major League Soccer teams began preseason last month with the dream of winning MLS Cup in December.
But only one team will have the heavy burden of expectation on their shoulders.
That team is star-studded Inter Miami CF, which didn’t make the MLS playoffs a year ago, but begin the 2024 season as clear favorites.
And given the Herons roster makeup, its championship or bust in South Beach this season.
Of course, the lense is focused on Miami, in large part, because of Lionel Messi. That would be true of any team that had the world’s greatest player on it. His arrival last summer brought about much fanfare and media attention and Inter Miami captured Leagues Cup immediately thereafter, with Messi largely steering the ship.
Messi was joined last summer by former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and former coach Tata Martino, who replaced Phil Neville as head coach ahead of the trio’s arrival.
“It’s very clear that, beyond reuniting with players that have won in the past, our ambition is winning and keep winning today and compete, which is why we’re here,” Busquets told reporters at MLS Media Day.
A fourth former Barca teammate arrived this winter with striker Luis Suarez joining the party, further elevating Inter Miami’s expectations.
“It was tough last year because we had Leagues Cup and we didn’t really have a preseason to train with each other,” defender DeAndre Yedlin told reporters. “We just kind of got thrown into it. But now we have preseason time to spend with each other, to really figure each other out and how we’re going to go about the season.”
And what a whirlwind preseason it has been. Inter Miami traveled to El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan in an effort to satisfy the insatiable hunger for live, in-person Messi, while expanding their brand worldwide.
But more importantly for the former Barcelona players, it was a chance to put work in during the preseason after not having one together a year ago.
“It’s good because we have great names and great players, but we have to be a solid team that has to show it on the field,” Busquets said. “We have a very important preseason that will be key for the three of us that joined midseason last year because we weren’t able to train much, we were playing every three or four days so now it’s about being solid, having many options in the roster, not conceding goals because we know that we’ll generate a lot of opportunities up top and we’ll score many goals.”
Unfortunately, the club also picked up longterm injuries during this world tour, with 18-year-old midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi (sports hernia) expected out for two to three months and winger Facundo Farias likely out for the season following a knee injury.
In addition to Suarez, who scored 147 goals in 191 appearances for Barcelona, winning four La Liga crowns, a UEFA Champions League and four Copa del Reys among other titles, the squad has been bolstered by the addition of Julian Gressel, signed via free agency after winning his second MLS Cup title a year ago with the Columbus Crew.
The 30-year-old is known as one of the best crossers of the ball in MLS and should provide plenty of service for Messi, Suarez and the like.
“It’s special to be on the field with those guys and train with those guys,” Gressel told media in Miami. “There’s no doubt about that. But at the same time I’m really happy that they’re regular guys. That’s really what it’s been like.”
Gressel also won an MLS Cup title with Atlanta United, where Martino was his head coach.
“Tata and I have had a very good connection from the very start in Atlanta. Knowing that he was obviously here — he got hired in the summer and we had a brief connection where I just wished him luck with the project and everything. Now over the offseason we talked a little bit more again as he wanted to bring me in,” Gressel said.
“It definitely helps. I know what they like, how we work and all those things. Those things I’ve been successful with so it made sense to come back and see if we can be successful again.”
Gressel, who has 25 goals and 66 assists in 213 regular season games for Atlanta, D.C. United, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Columbus Crew, said he’s been impressed by the groundedness of Miami’s worldwide superstars.
“On the first day, for example, Busquets came to me and congratulated me for the MLS Cup, without him knowing me,” Gressel said. “He knew that I had won, and all those types of things. It’s good to see and I’m obviously happy to play with those guys on the field and get to know them a little bit more as well.”
Miami also signed a pair of homegrowns in Tyler Hall and Israel Boatwright and Nicolas Freire on loan from Mexican side Pumas UNAM.
But it’s the addition of Suarez to Messi, Busquets and Alba that has some calling Inter Miami a superteam, not unlike those seen in the modern day NBA.
Martino is a basketball fan and knows what it means for teams to have that tag on them.
“First of all I like the NBA and from what I’ve followed in the NBA, before the superteams were comprised of two big players, then three and then even four. Sometimes those teams still struggle to win,” the head coach told reporters at MLS Media Day.
“What I do know is we will build a team that will demand playing well and what’s important is that also that affects how the rivals play against those teams. So when the Wizards play Milwaukee, they play even better because they are playing a team with a lot of big names and a lot of important players.”
Will this Inter Miami squad be a success story like the Golden State Warriors from 2016-19 with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Or the failed Brooklyn Nets experiment from 2021-23 with Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving?
That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. The world will be watching.