Curb your Messi Mania expectations in 2024. He wants to play every match, but will he?

Major League Soccer is having its moment again in the United States, and you can thank Lionel Messi for that.

Messi — the Argentine World Cup champion and eight-time Ballon d’Or winner — kicks off his second MLS season with Inter Miami at 8 p.m. Wednesday night against Real Salt Lake. The game will be played at Miami's newly-named Chase Stadium.

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This will be Messi’s first full season with the team after joining last summer, and captivating fans by leading the club to a Leagues Cup title a month after his arrival.

The expectations are even higher in 2024.

But Messi’s health and availability are paramount with fans all over North America, Argentina and abroad investing in Inter Miami tickets to experience Messi Mania.

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“If there’s anyone that wants to be in every game, play every minute and win everything, that’s Messi,” said Inter Miami chief business officer Xavier Asensi, who knows Messi intimately after 10 years together in Barcelona.

But ticket buyers need to temper their expectations of how much they'll see Messi play — if they see him at all — with a grueling schedule ahead for the 36-year-old star.

Feb 15, 2024; Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA; Inter Miami CF forward Lionel Messi (10) waves prior to the game against the Newell's Old Boys at DRV PNK Stadium.
Feb 15, 2024; Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA; Inter Miami CF forward Lionel Messi (10) waves prior to the game against the Newell's Old Boys at DRV PNK Stadium.

Messi’s U.S. moment comes with jam-packed schedule

Messi and Inter Miami will pursue the Champions Cup, the Leagues Cup again, the U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Cup this season. He’ll also join Argentina again for two matches in March, matches during Copa America (with the final in Miami) and other 2026 World Cup qualifying games this year.

It all starts on the pitch, where Messi could play upwards of 50-60 games during the year if his health holds up. A fine line must be navigated between winning, promoting Inter Miami and MLS globally, and driving the sport’s momentum in this country.

“This is going to be an amazing 2024, and what comes ahead of us: The eyes of the world are going to be on America and South Florida with Copa America this summer, the FIFA Team World Cup in 2025 and the World Cup in 2026,” Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas said.

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If Messi is in prime form, he’ll likely play entire Inter Miami matches, unless the score allows for a curtain call. If Messi is ramping up after an injury, he could see limited action. But if Messi is injured, he won’t play at all.

Those instances are difficult for Inter Miami to forecast, and will become disappointing realities ticket buyers must face if they arise.

“Players like Leo want to play. They want to be in absolutely every game. If it depended on him, he would play in every game. The reality is, that it is very difficult to be able to sustain with so many games throughout the year,” coach Tata Martino said. “So as coaches, what we have to look out for is the player's health and that he is able to play as many games as possible.

"Not only because fans want to see him, but also because it makes our team better if he is on the pitch.”

Messi’s absence in China is a cautionary tale

When fans are informed of Messi’s absence, however, has been a sticking point. In some instances, fans don’t know if Messi is coming off the bench or even playing at all until an hour before kickoff, when lineups are announced.

Messi did not play in a Hong Kong friendly earlier this month due to an adductor injury he has since recovered from. But fans grew restless and became angry as he sat from the bench in street clothes with no word he would not play.

It was a public relations disaster for Inter Miami during their international preseason tour, which made stops in El Salvador, Dallas, Saudi Arabia and Tokyo, and a cautionary tale for fans waiting to see Messi play this year.

“Unfortunately, it is something that happens in football, in any game it can happen that we get injured. It happened to me,” Messi said two days later, Feb.6, in Tokyo. “I couldn't be in the game in Hong Kong, and it's a shame because I always want to participate. I want to be there, and even more so when it comes to these types of games where we traveled so far, and people were so excited to watch us play.”

Martino said players will also rest when Inter Miami’s medical team deems further injury could be at risk. He understands fans’ disappointment if/when Messi is unavailable.

“I wish we could know in advance what games those would be, so we can communicate it,” Martino said. “But since that is decided depending on the minutes played, there are times when fans are disappointed, which we understand, because we have to go to a city and maybe he is either on the bench or not available to play.”

Messi missed six MLS games last September (two due to national duties and four due to injury), including Inter Miami’s final in the U.S. Open Cup, which they lost to Houston Dynamo.

And Asensi said no one was more upset about being sidelined in the final than Messi. “Believe me, you didn’t want to talk to him that night.”

Inter Miami does have “things to improve” when it comes to informing fans, Asensi acknowledges.

But he reiterates: No one wants to play more than Messi.

“If someone says, 'I’m sad because Messi is not playing.' Well, believe me. Leo is the one that is upset the most, and really it’s us because we want him to play," Asensi said. "Not just for you to be happy, but because we want to win."

“And that’s a difficult balance to find.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Messi wants to play every match, but fans should prepare for reality