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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: With or without Messi, this could be the year Inter Miami finally fulfills its promises

MIAMI — It remains to be seen whether Inter Miami gets Lionel Messi or makes a deep playoff run in 2023, but this much is certain: club owners and management are aiming extremely high and working on a few deals — including one for FC Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets — that could finally, once and for all, fulfill years’ worth of promises that the men in pink and black will pack their stadium and be a title contender.

Turns out it takes a lot more than a celebrity owner, stylish logo, expensive payroll and the lure of Miami’s palm trees to win an MLS championship.

Despite David Beckham’s 77 million Instagram followers and South Florida’s burning passion for international soccer, on display during the recent World Cup, Inter Miami failed to regularly sell out 19,000-seat DRV PNK Stadium or get past the first round of the playoffs in its first three seasons.

That should change this year.

The club is on the verge of announcing the signing of prolific Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez, the Atlanta United legend who scored 98 goals in 134 league games, including 77 in his first three seasons. In 2018 he was the MLS MVP and MLS Cup MVP and broke numerous scoring records.

Martinez is not Messi, but he has proven he can score MLS goals like nobody’s business. He understands this league, knows how to get between and behind its defenders, and that is vital as he will be expected to replace Gonzalo Higuain, who scored a team-high 16 goals last season before hanging up his boots.

Martinez holds the MLS record for career hat tricks with six in his first 44 games, the record for cumulative goals in regular and postseason with 35 and held the record for goals in a single season (31 in 2018) until Carlos Vela broke it a year later with 34.

He arrives in South Florida highly motivated to prove he can still dominate after an ACL tear caused him to miss most of 2020 and his productivity declined to 21 goals the past two seasons.

Martinez also should help drive attendance. He is well-known by MLS fans and an estimated 100,000 Venezuelans live in South Florida, including 35% of the population of Doral (nickname: Doralzuela). Inter Miami’s marketing team should be canvassing every soccer club, school, park, restaurant and bar in Doral to spread the word of Martinez’s arrival.

From a financial perspective, the signing is also a victory for Inter Miami, as Martinez will not occupy one of the team’s three designated player (DP) slots, leaving room for other top-priced players. A portion of his salary will come from the team’s TAM fund (targeted allocation money), one of several mechanisms in the complicated MLS salary structure.

Now that the Martinez deal is done, we await word of the next significant signing, which could be Busquets, the 34-year-old Spaniard considered one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.

His resume includes a World Cup title, a European championship, three Champions League titles and eight La Liga titles.

The defensive midfielder position is not as glamorous as forward, but critical to a winning team. It takes a technically gifted player with great vision, positioning and poise to disrupt opposing attacks and initiate offense the way Busquets does for Barcelona and the Spanish national team.

His contract with Barcelona expires in June, and Busquets has been linked to a Miami move since last year. The rumors heated up during the World Cup in Qatar, when he told Spanish outlet Cadena Sur:

“I would like to have some certainty by February. I have always said I would like to play in the United States, above all in Miami, but from there I have not reached any agreement with any club — in the U.S. or in any other league. Barcelona will be the first to know. When I have made a decision, I will tell them.”

If Inter Miami can pull off this deal, it would be massive.

Finally, there is the Messi question. Will he stay with Paris Saint Germain? Will he return to Barcelona? Or will he join Inter Miami?

From a purely soccer perspective, it is hard to imagine Messi, coming off a World Cup title, leaving Europe for the United States. Among his teammates at PSG are Neymar and Kilian Mbappe. Barcelona is Barcelona.

But what if Messi’s decision is about more than soccer? What if the Argentine superstar feels he has won everything there is to win in Europe and wants his family to experience life in America, in Miami, a city in which he already owns a home and would be embraced by a huge, adoring South American population?

What if Messi’s decision is about building on his already lucrative business portfolio as he heads toward the twilight of his career?

The 2026 World Cup is three and a half years away and will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada. Miami is one of the host cities. Surely, World Cup sponsors would love to have the best player in the world promoting their products from U.S. soil in the lead-up to the World Cup.

MLS and Apple just entered a 10-year, $2.5 billion global broadcast deal with a subscription service that will show all MLS games in more than 100 countries. It would behoove MLS and Apple to have Messi showcasing the league in an MLS uniform.

Inter Miami owners Beckham and Jorge and Jose Mas seem hopeful that Messi could wind up here this summer. But even if he doesn’t, or if he postpones a Miami move for another year, the additions of Martinez and Busquets could transform this team into a legitimate title contender.

The team plays its first preseason game Saturday against Brazilian club Vasco da Gama at DRV PNK Stadium. The season kicks off Feb. 25 against CF Montreal. Buckle your seat belts. It should be an interesting ride — with or without Messi.

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