Lionel Messi ushers in new era for Inter Miami, MLS as Messi mania sweeps across South Florida

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi, middle, celebrates with Robert Taylor (16) and Josef Martínez (17) after scoring a second goal against Atlanta United in the first half of a Leagues Cup group stage match at DRV PNK Stadium on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Time and space mark the finest margins in the game of futbol. With Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets on the field, it seems Inter Miami now has infinite of both.

Messi landed in South Florida on July 11 after being in China with the Argentina national team followed by a Bahamas vacation and trip back home to South America. Shame on us for even having the thought that he might need some time to adjust to his new surroundings.

After a few practices and getting to know his teammates, he has already added spectacular highlights to an unparalleled résumé in just a couple of games. He played only 36 minutes in the first and 78 in the second, but remember, time is infinite when dealing with this legend.

Three goals and an assist already — it all still seems unreal.

The greatest soccer player ever is now in Major League Soccer and using this blank canvas to continue painting masterpieces as only he could.

His first goal was a magical stroke of the brush, a classic free kick from right outside of the box to give Miami a 2-1 win in stoppage time versus Cruz Azul in his debut.

The second was a flashback to Barcelona as Busquets sailed a superb ball over the top and left Messi alone with the keeper. His initial shot ricocheted off the post but of course bounced back perfectly to his feet as he put it in the back of the net.

The third was a simple tap-in, but it was orchestrated by a vintage Messi run and movement that is routine for him as he sent the ball wide and drifted back into the box to receive the assist.

In a pair of matches, Messi and Busquets have almost made you forget that Inter Miami is the worst team in MLS. But that’s something they’ll worry about later because the objective now is Leagues Cup, and they’ve looked like the best team in that competition thanks to the new acquisitions.

This might be a good time to remind you that Jordi Alba, who is signed, hasn’t even joined the group yet.

FORT LAUDERDALE FL - JULY 21: Fans are seen as Lionel Messi of Inter Miami CF arrives during his first game in a League's Cup match against against Cruz Azul at DRV PNK Stadium on July 21, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX
Fans are seen as Lionel Messi of Inter Miami CF arrives during his first game in a Leagues Cup match against against Cruz Azul at DRV PNK Stadium on July 21, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (MediaPunch /IPX)

On Wednesday, they host their next rival in the knockout round of the tournament. For as much conversation that preceded his arrival and whether or not they should play games at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami due to larger capacity, Fort Lauderdale has already transformed into a comfortable home for "Messi mania."

Take a lap around DRV PNK Stadium hours before a game and you might think Argentina is playing because those classic No. 10 jerseys are in abundance as they blend in with the pink and black. When the team steps on the field for warmups, Messi's every move is cheered and recorded as fans scream out their admiration and soak in the moment.

It’s a name so easy to chant, two syllables, that has now become an instant soundtrack throughout Inter Miami games. The stands in the stadium are like bleachers, so at times it sounds like a thunderstorm is rolling through, which isn't unusual for the area, but it’s really just fans stomping on the ground in a furor.

It is indeed a full show and experience. So far LeBron James, Serena Williams, Diddy, Kim Kardashian, DJ Khaled among others have pulled up to the Messi show.

Cameras often pan to co-owner David Beckham smiling uncontrollably among the celebs and bright lights. He’s finally watching his dream come to life. The plan was never Rodolfo Pizarro, Gonzalo Higuain or Blaise Matuidi. Those were names Inter Miami ultimately had to settle for. But from the very inception they were shooting for the stars, and they finally got them.

New head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino is also a massive part of this equation, especially due to his familiarity with the league and players. When asked what the biggest difference he sees in Messi now compared to when he coached him years ago, Martino didn’t hesitate.

“The biggest change in Leo is that he’s lifted a huge weight off him he had with the Argentina national team,” Martino told Yahoo Sports. “He has done it in the past few years and that shows in everything: his day-to-day, statements, way of facing each of the games. Lionel is feeling very free, and undoubtedly, a player of that caliber being free means starting to see much more of these types of performances.”

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - JULY 25: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami CF reacts prior to the Leagues Cup 2023 match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at DRV PNK Stadium on July 25, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi reacts prior to the Leagues Cup match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at DRV PNK Stadium on July 25, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

That’s the most important part aside from what happens on the field. Messi, humble as always, doesn’t want this to be about just him. This is about Inter Miami as a whole and being the best teammate possible. He’s now also a teacher, constantly giving his teammates advice and pointing them in the right direction. It isn’t something he had to do much of in his career besides maybe lately with the national team, and you saw how well that worked out for them in December as they won the World Cup.

Naturally, everyone around him will improve because his caliber is one of a kind. But his arrival has allowed for Inter Miami players to loosen up, play freely and much more confidently. The stars are now going to inherit the responsibility, all his teammates have to do is execute. And do it well.

Miami midfielder Robert Taylor has answered the call, scoring three goals along with an assist in the past two games. Same stats as Messi.

Interestingly, Busquets and Alba might end up being the more influential pieces tactically for Inter Miami. But if teams aren’t going to press and get physical with these guys on the field, they are going to punish them every time.

“Coaches can prepare a game plan in a certain way, but players that good will always create their own space,” Martino said.

They’ve been doing it their whole lives.

A month ago, it was unimaginable that Miami might be able to make a Leagues Cup run. Now? Sky is truly the limit. Then they will shift focus to try and erase such an atrocious start to league play and make a push for a playoff spot. There’s also the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, where they visit FC Cincinnati in a place where no visiting team has won this year.

That could change just as everything else seemingly has.

It’s a new era in South Florida. This isn’t Barcelona or Paris. It’s not the legendary Camp Nou or Parc des Prince.

It’s Miami Fort Lauderdale. DRV PNK Stadium.

But at the end of the day, it’s the same ol’ Messi.