Inter Miami has finally made official its signing of Lionel Messi, but he joins a club with a steep hill to climb. Inter Miami currently sits at the bottom of MLS’ Eastern Conference and is in its second full year of league-issued sanctions.
Deals to reunite Messi with former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have not yet been completed, and by the time any of those three appear in an MLS regular season contest this August, they’ll be part of a team that will be concluding the second trimester of their campaign.
Here’s what a new-look Miami has left to play for in Messi’s first stateside campaign, and what Messi & Co. will need to do to find some measure of success.
MLS Playoffs qualification
Despite a forgiving playoff qualification structure that sees 18 of the league’s 29 teams make the postseason, Miami is far from certain to make the MLS Cup playoffs and have a chance to win the league’s ultimate prize: MLS Cup itself.
One would think the 62% rate of admission makes advancement a foregone conclusion for any team featuring arguably the greatest player of all time. However, Messi’s new club has dug itself into a downright cavernous hole.
As of July 16, Miami ranks last in the Eastern Conference after earning 18 points from 22 matches. Dismissing manager Phil Neville did little to slow the club’s freefall, as they earned just three points from their five contests under interim coach Javier Morales. On Saturday, Miami lost 3-0 at St. Louis City SC in Tata Martino’s debut with the club.
18 – Inter Miami has 18 points through 22 regular-season matches.
Excluding the shortened 2020 season, none of the 48 teams in the post-shootout era (since 2000) with 22 points or fewer through 22 matches of an MLS season have made the playoffs. Task. pic.twitter.com/bybUI8ARuc
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) July 16, 2023
History is not on Miami’s side, but the club will hope the unprecedented import of sheer talent can make for a great rise from the conference cellar.
One silver lining: Only two of Miami’s final 12 regular season games will come against Western Conference sides, meaning there will be plenty of six-point contests that can help make up ground in the table. There’s an even split between home and away fixtures, while just four of those 10 Eastern clashes will come against the conference’s top-seven sides.
That said, MLS’ balanced nature gives every other team challenging for a playoff place a similarly optimistic outlook. Of the nine teams residing below the East’s top six places, each side’s remaining schedule has an average opposition points per game rate somewhere between 1.29 and 1.45. That narrow range doesn’t give much advantage to any one club, Miami or otherwise. Further complicating Miami’s path is their presence in the ongoing U.S. Open Cup (more on that in a bit), which none of the other teams battling for a playoff spot will have to balance alongside the regular season.
In 2021 and 2022, each conference’s ninth-place finisher has earned an average of just shy of 45 points. Realistically, Miami will need to win at least eight or nine of its final dozen matches to have a realistic hope of qualifying for the postseason.
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I heard your thoughts as you read the previous section. Surely, a team with Messi can win eight or nine MLS matches from 12 on offer, you said. Well, let’s suppose that happens; Miami would likely qualify for the postseason as the eighth or ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, placing them in the play-in round of the reformatted MLS Cup Playoffs.
Teams 1-7 in each conference advance to the postseason, while the eighth and ninth-place finishers will play a one-off match at the higher seed’s venue. That victor will advance to the first round proper, where they’ll face the top seed in the conference (likely to be Cincinnati). There, they’ll play a best-of-three series which will be decided on wins and losses rather than aggregate scoreline. Each match of the series has the potential for extra time and penalty shootouts, and the first team to win two games in the set advances to the quarterfinal.
From there, it’s a single elimination format. Messi, the victorious underdog in this madcap scenario, would then face the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 series in the quarterfinal and the winner from the other side of the East’s bracket (likely seed 2 or 3) in order to earn a place in MLS Cup. The title game pits the playoff winner from each conference in a single-elimination contest hosted by the team which earned more points in the regular season. Almost certainly, that wouldn’t be the eighth or ninth seed from either conference.
If Miami snuck in as the ninth seed, they would play away from DRV PNK Stadium for every game except one of that best-of-three series against the conference regular season champion.
Could Messi and Miami theoretically pull one win from two tries at Cincinnati before beating the East’s fourth and second-best sides in succession before a championship game at the West’s best? Absolutely — it’s Lionel effing Messi we’re talking about.
Still, it’s a longshot given how poor Miami was in the season’s first two-thirds.
The Leagues Cup is a competition involving teams only from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX. Cruz Azul won the inaugural 2019 tournament, 2020’s was canceled due to COVID-19, then León won in 2021, before fixture congestion limited 2022’s edition to a series of friendlies between some of the leagues’ teams. Those tournaments were generally small affairs with an eight-team format, but that has changed big-time in 2023. This year’s Leagues Cup will feature all 47 teams which make up MLS and Liga MX, and both leagues are blocking off a month from their regular calendars in order to play it.
The group stage consists of 15 three-team groups — defending league champions Los Angeles FC and Pachuca skip right to the knockouts. The top two sides from each group head to the round of 32. The draw didn’t do Miami many favors, pitting them against regional rival Atlanta United (which ranks 7th in MLS as of the time of writing) and Cruz Azul, which finished eighth in the Clausura 2023.
Should Miami advance from the poetically named Group South 3, the club will find stiff competition. South 3 is the only group that will see both of its advancing sides face another group’s top finisher, with the winner playing the top of South 2 (Orlando, Santos, or Houston) and the second-place side taking on the winner of South 4 (Dallas, Necaxa, or Charlotte). The round of 16 and quarterfinal would also be played against teams from the South groups before a possible semifinal date with the East’s representative. Among the teams in that bracket are reigning Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia, 2021 MLS Cup winner New York City FC, Clausura 2022 winner Atlas FC and 2021 Supporters Shield winner New England Revolution.
Winning this competition will be a daunting task on the surface, given Miami’s underdog status and how many elements will need to coalesce on the fly – the Leagues Cup will be Messi’s first taste of competitive club soccer on U.S. soil, should he make his debut against Cruz Azul or Atlanta.
Of course, a knockout format could be exactly what a cumbersome project like Miami needs: high-stakes games where moments of brilliance can have an outsized impact on the final result. Miami shouldn’t be seen as a favorite given the tough group assignment alone, but it’s arguably an easier task than qualifying for the playoffs given the fact that they’ll be level with every other competitor.
U.S. Open Cup
For all of Neville’s struggles throughout the first half of the regular season, he did well to get Miami through to the quarterfinal of the United States’ oldest cup competition, particularly in a 2-1 round of 16 win over MLS Cup hopeful Nashville SC. Morales led the team past second-division challenger Birmingham Legion to gift Tata Martino, Messi and all of the new boys a semifinal date with FC Cincinnati.
Miami has made a trip to Ohio to face Cincinnati earlier this season, in which it fell to the current Supporters’ Shield frontrunner 1-0. Cincinnati created far better chances in that game, owning the xG battle by a 1.44-0.66 margin. Cincinnati has since seen Brazilian striker Brenner depart for Udinese in April, while his partner up top (Brandon Vazquez) has been a target of clubs including Borussia Mönchengladbach and Everton during the ongoing summer window. The U.S. international is unlikely to leave before the end of the season, although his reported dissatisfaction about not being able to move abroad during the European preseason could force the issue.
FC Cincy has a genuine shot at earning a domestic treble and is unlikely to play a weakened lineup this late in the competition. If the individual quality of Miami’s stars wins out, though, it would set up a date in the final against either Real Salt Lake or the Houston Dynamo. Neither side is in a similar echelon as Cincinnati, sitting third and ninth in the Western Conference as of July 16. The semifinal is the real hurdle, but without a doubt: this is Miami’s swiftest path to hardware in 2023.
How do we get Messi into the CONCACAF Champions Cup?
Ultimately, there’s one reasonable (but difficult) path to a cup, a longshot of a playoff push and participation in a nascent cross-league competition on the table for Messi in his first partial MLS season. However, MLS and all of CONCACAF would be elated to see him in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which replaces the CONCACAF Champions League starting in 2024.
Unfortunately for Miami, four slots on offer for MLS are awarded to the two regular season conference champions as well as the sides with the next two highest point totals. Another spot is awarded to the winner of MLS Cup, which could open the door to the fifth-best regular season side if a top-four outfit wins the playoffs.
Miami could also seal qualification by winning the U.S. Open Cup. Another three spots are awarded to the top three finishers at the Leagues Cup, which further incentivizes success in the new competition.
In total, there are still five avenues that could lead to continental soccer remaining open for Miami.
This is not a part of Major League Soccer. If Miami finishes at the bottom of the combined MLS table they’ll win the league’s least desired honor: the supporter-issued Wooden Spoon.
If Miami misses the playoffs, however, they’ll enjoy a full seven weeks of additional offseason compared to the two sides which progress to MLS Cup. For a trio of veteran stars coming off of a long European season, a World Cup and the tail-end of an MLS campaign, that time may be invaluable as it builds toward a (hopefully) better 2024 in Fort Lauderdale.
(Photo: Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)