Bathed in blinding klieg lights and camera flashes, Lionel Messi had to squint a bit to make out his audience at first.

The Argentine legend was perched on a lone leather-upholstered barstool at the center of a wide stage adorned, like him, in the club’s distinctive pink and black livery. It was just his second press conference as a Heron, and he was sitting in Tokyo at the tail end of Inter Miami CF’s preseason world tour, a 25,000-mile circumnavigation of the planet whose mere existence, let alone itinerary, confirmed the global scale of the impact of his arrival in MLS.

One of the most singular – and endearing – aspects of Lionel Messi’s all-conquering mystique is that as transcendent as he is on the pitch, as audacious and amazing as his skill and achievements are, he does not appear to relish the relentless superstar spotlight in and of itself, even if he knows it is part and parcel of the territory of greatness he inhabits.

“I’m a little tired from the travel, but eager to play this last match before returning home,” said the most-likely-jetlagged GOAT.

“We are very happy to be here in Japan after sharing this experience with this team and with the people of Japan. We have a desire to enjoy these days here and give a great match to the people. We want to get a good result ahead of everything that’s coming afterwards.”

Weight of expectations

That ‘afterwards’ is now at hand. After half a year of breathless headlines and skyrocketing hype, amid talk of a new era in North American soccer after he and his team christened his Miami arrival with a storybook Leagues Cup championship, Messi, fellow luminaries Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba and their teammates officially embark on his first full IMCF season as the curtain rises on MLS 2024 with their match vs. Real Salt Lake on Wednesday evening (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

Miami boast, in the words of MLSsoccer.com’s own Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle, “the best and deepest roster I’ve ever seen in MLS.” By some measures, it may rank as the most expensively assembled as well. Will they scoop up every piece of hardware (five of them, give or take) in their path? Or might they stumble like so many galaticos-type projects in the past?

Whatever happens, the world is watching, and expectations are sky-high.

“I mean, you look at the roster on paper,” Michelle Kaufman, who covers IMCF for the Miami Herald, told MLSsoccer.com. “And you say, how can this team lose? They have nine or 10 national team players on this team. You have Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez; two of your attackers are two of the best attackers of this generation, coming from where they came from.

“Then you have Sergio Busquets, you have Jordi Alba, those four are the ‘Fab Four,’ I call them the Mount Rushmore, whatever – they are four of the best players in this generation, they come from Barcelona, they all know each other, they played together. You would think that you could just drop those on the field with seven other guys and they would win. And then you have other great talent, too.”

Messi bright lights

Global attraction

The reunion vibes are romantic, and that Leagues Cup run was swift, sudden and inspiring.

“Who would’ve thought we’d be together again? Fortunately, it turned out that way and now we have to enjoy it and try to win many trophies as possible,” Alba told reporters when Suárez joined the squad.

Asked how many trophies they sought to claim this year, the Spanish left back did not pump the brakes.

“All of them,” he said. “All of them. It’s clear we haven’t won anything yet. We want to win every trophy we’re playing for. It’s going to be very complicated because there are some very well-prepared teams with the same dreams as us, but I think we have a very good team.”

Yet Miami have not swept aside all before them – not last year, where injuries and a congested schedule sank their late push for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. And not much on the preseason tour, where the Herons’ potent attack found goals hard to come by while the defensive frailties exposed last autumn flared up again and again.

Despite being barely half a decade old, playing home matches in a temporary stadium while their Miami Freedom Park project inches towards completion, IMCF are treated by many as a global brand with broad appeal, and those are big shoes to wear.

“They are kind of an all-star type of team, even though they don't have a long history like those other historic clubs,” said Kaufman. “A lot of fans around the world want to see them play, are willing to pay money to see them play. Promoters are willing to pay money to fly them over, which is not the case for most of the teams. So they are in a unique situation.

“With that starting lineup, that team should go to the MLS final. But I've been a sports writer for 35 years. And that's not how sports works.”

Suarez and Messi pregame

No guarantees

It’s a truism that preseason results have little bearing on how a team actually competes once the real games start, particularly in MLS, where even the more formalized winter games are fundamentally still scrimmages. But the ups and downs of IMCF’s tour reminded everyone that successful teams are more, usually much more, than impressive accumulations of talent.

“Superteams also find it difficult to win,” noted head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino at the start of preseason 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.”

Martino knows many of his players well, having coached them at FC Barcelona and/or the Argentina national team. He knows MLS well, too, as a key architect of Atlanta United’s paradigm-shifting 2018 MLS Cup capture (as was his recent free-agent signing Julian Gressel). So he knows as well as anyone of the contrasting forces at play here.

As Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell pointed out at the time, Martino is an NBA fan and was discussing the ‘superteam’ concept in the context of basketball’s versions. Which might make the likes of Golden State, Milwaukee and the LA Clippers a better comparison to his current squad than Madrid, Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Europe’s laissez-faire approach to spending and roster construction means those giants face far fewer obstacles to engineering this level of dominance compared to the more carefully regulated systems of North American sports, including MLS’s salary budget and concomitant web of roster regulations.

Suarez and Alba, for example, carry Designated Player-caliber résumés but have taken major pay cuts to be part of this group. IMCF just sold off one of their most effective and influential midfield ball-winners, former captain Gregore, to Brazilian side Botafogo on Monday, reportedly to fall in line with roster rules in time for their opening match. Something similar might be said of last year’s top defender, Kamal Miller, who was traded to Portland over the winter.

“For me, MLS is designed in a way that kind of forces teams to be top-heavy; this team is what you get when you maximize that,” said The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio, who is writing a book called ‘The Messi Effect’ on Inter Miami and their talisman. “They went and signed three big-name DPs for significant money, three Under-22 players with significant transfer fees, and then even their TAM players are high-profile, big-name players.

“So I think it becomes a real experiment of how successful can top-heavy teams be, in both MLS competition and outside of it, because the downfalls of top-heavy teams remain the same no matter how strong that top is – which is that once you start to suffer through injuries or absences, the depth gets stretched to a higher degree, and then that can cause problems.”

Sergio Busquets - Inter Miami

A test for Tata

Even at full strength the Herons would rely on young homegrowns and other reserves to contribute both minutes and end product when the veterans are rested, injured or away on international duty. Several injuries have already complicated that picture: U22 attacker Facundo Farías suffered a long-term ACL injury early in the world tour, and then academy-reared wunderkind Benjamin Cremaschi was sidelined for two to three months by a sports hernia.

“The biggest job that Tata has and that this club has in general is player management, the minute management,” said Kaufman. “The biggest thing on this team is not even so much tactics, although they do have to work on tactics, especially defense, but they need to manage with all of the games that they have to play, with the league games and the Concacaf Champions Cup and Leagues Cup … then several of these guys are going to play Copa América, too.

“You're potentially talking about 60 games or something if you throw all of that in there, and if they were to go deep into the playoffs, you're talking about almost double the regular 34-game MLS season. You're talking about adding on potentially 20 more games. It's a lot. It's a lot, and yeah, they're going to have to play a lot of other players. They're going to have to switch people out. There's going to be a lot of rotation going on.”

Jordi Alba - Inter Miami

"Target on their back"

The biggest X-factor in any direction is Messi himself. When the GOAT is on the pitch, the Herons can beat almost anyone, or at least have the belief that they are highly capable of doing so – both qualitatively and psychologically.

“I was in Chicago when [Bastian] Schweinsteiger arrived,” recalled Tenorio, “and I watched players get better because he told them that they were good and he literally gave them confidence: ‘I trust in you.’ And so then they trusted in themselves.

“There's some of that, just interacting with Messi and him kind of actually giving them confidence in how he speaks to them, interacts with them and plays with them. And then I think there is a level of competence when you know you have the best player on the field. You get a little bit more space and a little bit more grace and your runs get rewarded a little bit more, because you have players that can change games and so the actual performance of the team gets lifted, and then that kind of lifts everyone's confidence.”

Messi’s sheer excellence makes playing for Miami a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of his teammates, an exhilarating ride on which the intense demands and constant scrutiny of fame can feel like an adventure rather than a burden. But a confluence of factors has trained a white-hot spotlight on all of them, and Wednesday vs. RSL is the first moment of truth.

“I feel like there is immense – if there's a word more immense than immense – pressure on this team to win the opener,” suggested Kaufman. “Because with the talent they have, with the amount of money that they've spent, with the amount of hype around this team, with this preseason tour – they have to win their opening game. If they go out there at Chase Stadium, when they're charging fans double what they charge last year for season tickets, if all those fans come out there having paid double what they paid last year, and they lose their opening game, that is going to be a huge setback for them.

“I know it's just one game in a really long season. But I think that there's a lot of pressure on this team to win right away and show that they are worthy of all the hype and the expensive salaries and everything that the club is paying. So it's a lot of pressure. Every guy on that team and Tata Martino has more pressure than any other team in the league. They have a big, giant pink-and-black target on their back.”

Tata Martino

CCC dreams

In the longer term, no one can say just how many minutes the legs of Messi, Suarez, Busquets and Alba have in them this year, particularly during the hot, busy summer months, and how the rest of the team can keep their level from dropping when one or more members of the Fab Four are out.

Can others step up when needed? What will Tata and his staff prioritize when they are forced to make difficult decisions about fitness and load management, amid packed crowds at every game eager to witness Messi & Friends in person? Will they build a collective capable of providing a sturdy platform for the stars without growing overly dependent on them?

“Taking part in multiple competitions simultaneously, all of which are important for different reasons, is what I think is going to be the toughest task for Inter Miami,” said Tenorio. “Just like last year, where they were playing a game every three days because they went all the way to the Leagues Cup final, it took its toll on that team.

“And there's no relief in this season. I mean, you look at preseason, they traveled 25,000-plus miles, circumnavigated the globe playing preseason games. They start off the season with a standalone game to open the year on a Wednesday, then they play on Sunday of opening weekend and that kicks off a piece of time where they play eight games in a little more than a month.”

Perhaps that’s why Martino last week alluded to Concacaf Champions Cup as both the most difficult and most unique prize on offer for his side, with continental supremacy and a place in the FIFA Club World Cup up for grabs.

“We will surely go with every intention of being able to revalidate that [Leagues Cup] title,” said the Argentine manager. “There is the league, in which we have been able to reach the playoffs, and at the very least we need to reach that. And then there is the great challenge that is the Conca Champions.

“It seems to me that because of the prize, that is probably the most important tournament that we have to play in, and it is also a different tournament from the league. Because the league is so long that it allows you to make the odd mistake. The short tournaments and head-to-head matches allow you few or almost no errors.”

Messi corner flag

"Everyone is going to be watching"

As Leagues Cup winners, the Herons benefited from a bye in the opening round of CCC, and will face a yet-to-be-determined opponent, the winner of Nashville SC's two-legged tie with Dominican Republic side Moca FC, starting with a potentially tricky away leg on March 7. Many an MLS team has struggled to juggle Concacaf play with domestic action over the years, but given the experience and sense of the moment that Messi and his comrades possess, knockout competition may suit Miami more than most.

“I think you take this team in knockout games against anybody, right?” said Tenorio. “If you're going into a knockout tournament and you know everything’s on the line, you have a star marquee player who wants to win. And that’s one of the most incredible things about him, is his desire to perform and to win.

“That was what was incredible about watching the League Cup last year. People asked, are you getting bored writing about kind of the same story, in a way? I was like, well, it's never the same. Messi always steps up and it always feels different and it always feels amazing. He senses the moment and he answers it.”

Miami have Messi. And that is the one ingredient that separates them from everyone else they’ll play in 2024, potentially ending with MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 7.

“It’s going to be a fascinating year, that I can say without reservation,” said Kaufman. “I don't know if they're going to win. I don't know how much they're going to win. I do know that it will be a fascinating storyline this season, because everyone is going to be watching. They have so much to prove.”