Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly every Inter Miami match is now a home match
Forty minutes was all Lionel Messi needed to truly settle into his new home. The Argentinian marked his Inter Miami debut with a free-kick winner off the bench. Every match Messi has played at DRV PNK Stadium since then has been a party, but the true measure of Messi Mania has been in the matches he has played away from south Florida.
FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium was packed for the visit of Inter Miami on 7 August. Most of the crowd, however, wore pink (or blue and white). It wasn’t a FC Dallas home crowd – it was a Messi crowd, and he put on a show with two goals in a 4-4 draw that ended with an Inter Miami penalty shootout victory.
The vibe was somewhat different for last week’s Leagues Cup semi-final away to the Philadelphia Union. Messi was given a warm welcome by some fans but large sections of the sold-out crowd booed Messi (it’ll take more than the Goat being in town for a Philly crowd not to root for the home team), but nonetheless, a pattern has been established. Wherever Messi goes, hysteria follows.
Inter Miami aren’t only Messi
Inter Miami’s dramatic uptick in form certainly proves one thing – having the greatest player of all time makes winning easier. Indeed, there has been no bigger factor in the turnaround of a team viewed not so long ago as the worst in MLS than Messi. But it isn’t the only reason for Miami’s improvement.
Related: ‘They’ve been given everything’: Rival fans watch Messi shine again for Miami
Sergio Busquets has given Inter Miami control in central midfield. His passing range means opposition defenders can’t afford to switch off. Then there’s Jordi Alba – the final member of the ‘Messi And Friends’ troupe to join – whose direct running gives Inter Miami an easy route forward.
Not content with signing three legitimate legends, Inter Miami have also added exciting young players like Diego Gómez, Facundo Farias and Tomás Avilés. Finally, in Tata Martino the club has hired a knowledgable coach with experience of success in MLS. Messi is certainly the biggest difference-maker, but Inter Miami’s foundations are now stronger than at any other point of their existence.
MLS defending is under the microscope
Messi’s first Inter Miami goal was viewed 200m times. The view count on his second goal, against Atlanta United only a few days later, reached a similar tally. These numbers are why MLS wanted Messi in the first place – more eyeballs should mean more growth – but the sight of a 36-year-old strolling through matches doesn’t say a lot about the standard of defending in the league.
Of course, Messi has made an entire career out of making opposition defenders look silly (just ask Jérôme Boateng who ankles were never the same again after their encounter in the 2015 Champions League). Nonetheless, the time and space being afforded to Messi has generated discussion – and derision. See the aforementioned goal against Atlanta United, when Busquets had the freedom of the entire pitch to clip a pass through for Messi, who was almost immediately clean through on goal. Mannequins would have closed him down quicker.
Messi’s arrival could force MLS teams to spend more on defenders. Of the 80 Designated Players currently playing in the league, only four (Walker Zimmerman, Andreas Maxso, Thiago Martins, Teenage Hadebe) are defenders. MLS’s salary cap means defences are constructed using spare change. Messi is highlighting the imbalance.
DRV PNK Stadium is starting to look like the Staples Center
LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kaedashian in attendance as Lionel Messi makes his debut for Inter Miami. Photograph: Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, Serena Williams, DJ Khalid, Camila Cabello, Rick Ross, Derek Jeter, Diddy, Becky G, Marc Anthony … they’ve all been to DRV PNK Stadium to watch Messi as an Inter Miami player. Not even the celebrity glitterati are immune to the allure of a world champion.
Pitchside at DRV PNK Stadium has become the MLS equivalent of courtside at Staples Center or Madison Square Garden. More celebrities are certain to make the trip out to Fort Lauderdale in the near future (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Reese Witherspoon were at Saturday’s Leagues Cup final, which Miami won). MLS is in danger of becoming cool.
Messi is in Miami to have fun
It can be difficult to get a read on Messi’s internal monologue. That is largely because he rarely speaks (Messi’s first press conference as an Inter Miami player took place a full month after his signing). However, the 36-year-old has shown enough joy on the pitch to reveal why he is in Miami – to have fun.
A weight has clearly been lifted from Messi’s shoulders. As The Ringer’s Brian Phillips wrote, Messi wore PSG’s kit “like a stressed-out banker wearing a suit on the Metro.” At Inter Miami, though, “he wears jubilant pink, like a polo-sporting Southern lawyer eyeing the oyster bar at an outdoor wedding reception.”
The smile is back on Messi’s face after an unhappy end to his PSG career. He’s celebrating goals by imitating Marvel superheroes – first Thor, then Black Panther, then Spider-Man. He’s enjoying the South Beach nightlife with his wife. His children have been seen on the pitch after matches. Miami suits Messi. He may not be in south Florida for long, but he’ll have a good time while he’s there.