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MLS 2024 season: Lionel Messi set to embark on first full campaign as Inter Miami target maiden domestic title

After a world tour that turned into a circus, 'Messi-mania' is set to roll back into town - but there is no guarantee of success for Inter Miami ahead of their 2024 MLS season curtain-raiser against Real Salt Lake in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday evening

Credit - AP Photo

Lionel Messi and new signing Luis Suarez are set to star as David Beckham-owned Inter Miami kick off Major League Soccer's biggest season yet.

More eyes are on the United States and Canada's top division than ever before as the league's 29th season gets under way in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday evening.

It is MLS' earliest-ever start to a campaign and begins with a standalone fixture as Miami host Real Salt Lake at the newly-renamed and freshly-upgraded Chase Stadium.

Not only is eight-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi fit for Wednesday's opener, but Suarez is expected to make his competitive debut following his winter switch to Florida from Brazilian side Gremio.

Fans were left angry as Messi sat out the Hong Kong friendly
Image: Fans were left angry as Lionel Messi sat out the Hong Kong friendly

Messi will be involved having overcome the inflamed adductor issue that saw him miss a high-profile pre-season friendly in Hong Kong, sparking fury from expectant ticket-holders. The South China Morning Post labelled it "the greatest letdown of all time".

"They're playing and they're ready to play," Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said of Messi and former Liverpool striker Suarez. "If they're required to play 90 minutes, we're going to look at it always depending on the need of the team."

Messi at Inter Miami: The story so far

Inter Miami team co-owner and former soccer star David Beckham, right, smiles as Inter Miami's and Argentina's national team player Lionel Messi receives the 2023 Ballon d'Or trophy from during the 67th Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) award ceremony at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Image: Messi receives the 2023 Ballon d'Or trophy

Miami ended last season without a win in their last six matches, wearied by their heavy schedule.

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"We had three tournaments and won one," Martino said. "The team was exhausted. That's no excuse. That's the reality."

Results at the start of the campaign meant Miami were bottom of the Eastern Conference when Messi made his debut last August. He made an instant impact, scoring on his debut against New York Red Bulls and the 36-year-old led them to a Leagues Cup title.

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi in action against Al Nassr's Mohammed Qasem during the Riyadh Season Cup soccer match between Inter Miami and Al Nassr at Kingdom Arena Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Image: Messi scored 11 goals in 14 matches during his first season

Messi was unable to deliver enough magic to help his new club overcome their slow start to make the playoffs - and anything but a long run in the post-season play-offs this time around will be deemed as an underachievement.

"The season ended on a downer when the team failed to reach the play-offs," Miami Herald's sports reporter Michelle Kaufman told Sky Sports. "The Leagues Cup run was very exciting - Messi scored 11 goals - but the end of the season was deflating, as the team seemed good enough to make the postseason.

Messi at Inter Miami: The story so far
Messi at Inter Miami: The story so far

Lionel Messi's arrival catapulted Inter Miami into the international consciousness. But has the Argentina superstar lived up to expectations?

"But the climb proved too much considering they started at the bottom of the table and were running out of gas in the final games.

"The expectations for 2024 will now be huge. With that roster and the addition of Luis Suarez, anything less than a deep play-off run will be considered a failure."

Alba: Miami already feels like family

Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta all smiles after Inter's last leg in Japan against Vissel Kobe
Image: Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta all smiles after Inter's last leg in Japan against Vissel Kobe

Suarez is the latest former Barcelona star to rock up in Miami, where he has joined Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

"It's good, very positive," left-back Alba said on the eve of the MLS opener. "When we got here we found a coach, players and staff who are spectacular. Like a family. They treat us very well.

"For Luis, besides the fact we're friends, he is going to bring us a lot in attack and is a great player. [The younger players] always listen when we talk and we are here to give them advice. We all get along well.

Messi faced Newell's Old Boys in a pre-season friendly
Image: Messi faced Newell's Old Boys in a pre-season friendly

"In all teams you have veterans and young players, building a positive environment for the benefit of the team."

Messi, Busquets and Alba have already won their first trophy in Miami's eye-catching pink kit, having roared to victory in the inaugural Leagues Cup last year.

The competition provided a memorable start to their life in North America and Alba is eyeing more silverware this term.

"We have a lot of big players but that doesn't mean anything, you have to show what you can do," the Spain international said. "It is going to be hard.

"Hopefully we can win all the titles. I understand the fans' enthusiasm and the expectations they have for the team, but we have to show it on the field and we think we're on a good path."

Emerging talent to watch

New England Revolution's exciting talent Noel Buck
Image: New England Revolution's exciting talent Noel Buck

Inter have assembled quite possibly the strongest roster in MLS history, and it is not just the old guard who could make the difference. Paraguay's 20-year-old Diego Gomez provides almost as much excitement.

The Athletic has reported Manchester City and Arsenal interest in New England Revolution's Noel Buck who is an England U19 international having snubbed the USMNT.

Despite being born in Massachusetts, he qualifies for the Three Lions on his father's side. He provided five goal involvements last season, and plenty more is expected from such an emerging talent.

Real Salt Lake's Diego Luna and Argentina's World Cup-winner Thiago Almada - who has remained at Atlanta United despite interest across Europe - are two other players set to catch the eye.

2026 World Cup looming large

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Messi makes one fan's dreams come true while stuck in traffic! Messi was asked to sign an Argentina shirt in Miami and duly obliged while stopped at traffic lights

Messi chose Inter Miami over a move to Al Hilal in the Saudi Pro League where many of his contemporaries now play, or a homecoming at Barcelona.

His arrival signified the wider ambitions of the MLS. He has attracted casual fans to the sport as the USA prepares to co-host the 2026 World Cup. Inter Miami's distinctive pink jerseys are now synonymous with the Argentinian too, and are a regular sight on the streets of south Florida.

Last October, speaking after the culmination of the regular season, NBC ProSoccer Talk editor and lead soccer writer Joe Prince-Wright told Sky Sports: "The similarities to David Beckham's arrival in MLS at LA Galaxy can be made, but I've never seen anything quite like this.

Ashley Westwood tackles Inter Miami's Lionel Messi
Image: Messi is back in MLS action after a pre-season pantomime

"When he finally arrived it was an incredible moment for the league. And let's not forget - the MLS nearly went bust back in 2000, so Messi arriving caps a remarkable turnaround for the league over the last 20 years.

"For many years, it has been a slow and steady development of the league, before a rapid period of expansion teams in recent years. Now Messi arriving ahead of the 2026 World Cup is seen by many as the final piece of the jigsaw for the MLS as they aim to become even more mainstream in the USA and around the world.

"On the pitch, we are talking about the worst team in the Eastern Conference by some way before he arrived.

Luis Suarez is Messi's newest support act in Miami
Image: Luis Suarez is Messi's newest support act in Miami

"The goals he scored, the way he has captured the imagination of not only the public and the fanbase in Miami, but the other players there too, is quite astonishing.

"Almost every single Inter Miami player has raised their game and signing someone like Messi signifies to the other players 'okay, I have to be at my best level possible because obviously the ownership mean business and I can't afford to let my levels slip for a single second'.

"His mentality to lead and want to help this group of players achieve things they never thought would be possible is something we saw come to the fore in the run to win the Leagues Cup and reach the US Open Cup final."

Will rivals capitalise on disruptive pre-season?

Inter Miami go through training in Fort Lauderdale
Image: Inter Miami go through training in Fort Lauderdale

Miami's opening match will be at home against Real Salt Lake as the 2024 MLS season gets under way with replacement referees amid a labour dispute.

It will mark a welcome return home for Miami following a pre-season tour during which they were booed after a last-minute decision saw record eight-time Ballon d'Or and World Cup winner Messi sit out a Hong Kong friendly due to injury.

Beckham was ruthlessly jeered by 40,000 fuming fans demanding a refund. It was not the only disappointment during a three-week schedule which saw Martino's team travel 23,000 miles.

What was billed as a potential final meeting between Messi and his long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo did not materialise, but there was no doubt which of the superstars enjoyed Al Nassr's 6-0 rout in Saudi Arabia.

A damaged paper model of Messi ahead of the friendly between Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami
Image: A damaged paper model of Messi ahead of the friendly between Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami

Messi appeared for seven minutes plus added time towards the end of the game, leading Spanish publication Marca to label it a 'Last Dance Disaster'.

Despite all their talent, there will be plenty of hurdles in Miami's way, as defending MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew and reigning Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati will both try to fend off Messi in the Eastern Conference.

Columbus, under French coach Wilfried Nancy, open their season against Atlanta on Saturday at home with their sights set on becoming the fourth MLS team to repeat as champions and first since Beckham and LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012.

Columbus return with a loaded squad featuring 2023 MLS Cup Most Valuable Player Cucho Hernandez, four-time MLS Cup winner Darlington Nagbe and All-Star Aidan Morris.

In the Western Conference, St Louis City SC will be eager to build on their groundbreaking 2023 season when they became the first MLS team to clinch the top seed in their conference during a debut campaign.

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Charlotte FC midfielder Ashley Westwood has hailed the impact of Messi on the MLS and claims it is an honour to play against him

Also expected to lead the charge in the Western Conference are Los Angeles FC, who won the 2022 MLS Cup before falling in last year's final to Columbus.

LAFC, whose head coach Steve Cherundolo was given a multi-year contract extension in December, return this season with France's World Cup-winner Hugo Lloris in goal following an 11-year spell with Tottenham Hotspur.

"It's rare that an MLS team, and a team in general, is able to sign a World Cup-winning captain," LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington told the Los Angeles Daily News. "And it did not take long for me and for us as a club to see exactly why Hugo has had the career he has had."

Will Barcelona reunion deliver in Miami?

After sending ticket prices skyrocketing amid all the hype and constant headlines, Miami will try to put together the right plan in order to get the most out of their star-studded cast.

"Superteams also find it difficult to win," Martino admitted in January. "Only if we prepare well and separate ourselves from believing that just by bringing together footballers, stories, pasts, we are going to do it. The teams that win are the ones that come together."

There is the added complication that should Argentina reach the Copa America final this summer, Messi could miss a fifth of Miami's regular season.

After a world tour from El Salvador to Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong turned into a circus, 'Messi-mania' is set to roll back into town but - just like his availability for selection - there is no guarantee of success.

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