Can Lionel Messi and Inter Miami be MLS Cup champions? 2024 MLS season preview

As Major League Soccer kicks off its 29th season, there will be one player and one team that will commandeer much of the focus.

Lionel Messithe eight-time Ballon d'Or winner and 2022 World Cup champion — enters his first full season with Inter Miami CF.

Messi and Miami flourished in their first few months together. Messi joined the Herons in time to lead them to victory in the Leagues Cup. Inter Miami also reached the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. However, Messi's arrival couldn't help Miami dig itself out of a massive deficit in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the MLS playoffs proceeded without the soccer G.O.A.T.

In case you need a refresher, it was the Columbus Crew who won the 2023 MLS Cup, defeating Los Angeles FC in the final. However, it is Inter Miami that enters the 2024 season as the betting favorites to hoist MLS Cup come Dec. 7.

Are those lofty expectations for Messi and Miami warranted?

Ahead of Wednesday night's MLS regular-season opener between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake, we asked USA TODAY Network's soccer reporters and writers:

Will Messi and Miami really win MLS Cup? If not, who will?

While Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to victory in the 2023 Leagues Cup, he appeared in just six regular-season games as the Herons failed to make the playoffs.
While Lionel Messi led Inter Miami to victory in the 2023 Leagues Cup, he appeared in just six regular-season games as the Herons failed to make the playoffs.

Inter Miami faces bigger issues than troubling preseason

No, they won't win it all. Does anyone actually think this could happen?

Aside from the shambles Inter Miami currently is, its larger problem is the schedule in June, July and August. Specifically, that several players could miss significant chunks of it because of national team commitments. Lionel Messi will be gone for either Copa America or the Paris Olympics. Or maybe both! That’s a minimum of six games missed and maybe as many as 10.

Argentina might also want 20-year-old Tomas Aviles for its Paris roster. The Dominican Republic qualified for the Paris Olympics, and you’d have to think it would want Edison Azcona for the Games. Santiago Morales is only 17, but with U.S. Soccer looking to get players experience in tournaments ahead of the 2026 World Cup, it’s possible he could be on USYNT coach Marko Mitrovic’s radar. Add in injuries that inevitably occur, and that’s a lot of roster juggling for a not-insignificant chunk of the season.

So who does win? It’s hard to pick against the Columbus Crew, since they didn’t lose anyone significant from last year’s MLS Cup champions. But I’d also keep my eye on St. Louis CITY. I like the moves they made to bolster their defense. — Nancy Armour, USA TODAY

Inter Miami has to prioritize preventing Messi burnout

Maybe. Messi and his old friends have the ability to get off to a hot start, and will prioritize tournaments they can win earlier in the season like the Champions Cup, Leagues Cup which they won last year) and U.S. Open Cup (which they lost in the final) this summer.

If they win any of those titles, the season will still be a success. And if they’re in the MLS playoff mix by season’s end, they will be feared because of their stars.

Will Inter Miami last all season to compete in the MLS Cup? That’s my burning question. — Safid Deen, USA TODAY

Many factors working against Inter Miami in its MLS Cup hopes

Despite one of the most talented rosters we've seen in MLS history, there are far too many question marks with Inter Miami to pick them to win MLS Cup over the field. Between age, injuries and international duty, the Herons will likely be missing the Messi-Busquets-Alba-Suarez quadrant quite often in 2024. Injuries to young stars Facundo Farias and Benja Cremaschi also won't help as the club looks to manage those absences.

Instead, I'm picking the Seattle Sounders to win MLS Cup due to their proven MLS core and dynamic new additions like Pedro de la Vega. — Seth Vertelney, Pro Soccer Wire

Quartet of established powerhouses will outlast Inter Miami

No. Miami has assembled a beautiful, uber-expensive sports car of a team. It's not a new car, but it's been refurbished and given a new pink paint job. When it performs, it's going to be something truly special, and unlike anything we've seen in MLS ever before.

It's just that, that car needs too much maintenance, and those issues are going to pile up as the miles get long and the summer heats up. We've already seen Messi need some time off during the club's globe-spanning preseason, even at the cost of being embroiled in a minor international incident. Luis Suárez played over 50 games last year in Brazil, but his knees are a well-documented source of trouble. Sergio Busquets has also missed preseason time with injury, and Jordi Alba is still a 34-year-old playing the most physically demanding role in soccer.

Miami will look like a contender and make the playoffs, but it's going to be a short postseason trip. Look for the Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, LAFC and the Seattle Sounders to all outlast the Herons. — Jason Anderson, Pro Soccer Wire

Just making playoffs will be challenge for Miami in strong Eastern Conference

MLS hasn't had a back-to-back champion since 2012, but that doesn't mean Inter Miami will slide right into the champions-to-be slot, even with the G.O.A.T. himself — Lionel Messi — on the team. Sure, the squad is star-studded, but also that core is aging. Simply qualifying for the playoffs in the stacked Eastern Conference will be a challenge for Miami.

That said, I also expect this season's MLS Cup champion to come out of the East and think this could be the season that Orlando City breaks through. Already strong in defense, Orlando City added an experienced goal-scorer in Luis Muriel, who will team with fellow designated players Facundo Torres and Martín Ojeda to help the Lions light up the scoreboard. — Jim Reineking, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLS 2024 season preview: Lionel Messi, Inter Miami title chances