“A different team”: Inter Miami’s new coach, new culture await Messi’s arrival

In the wake of Inter Miami CF’s unprecedented signing of Lionel Messi last month, the club is undergoing massive changes, both on and off the pitch, in preparation for the arrival of the Argentine star.

Appointing his former national team manager, Gerard “Tata” Martino, as Inter Miami’s new coach, is the latest move in that vein.

Martino, who is awaiting a work visa before he can fully man the sidelines after his hire last week, is on a return trip to the MLS. He orchestrated two successful seasons with Atlanta United, winning the MLS Cup Final in 2018.

When he makes his debut, he will officially relieve interim coach Javier Morales, who replaced Phil Neville, and was fired last month following 10 losses in the club’s first 15 games this season.

“Working together with leadership in the club, we’re able to bring in a winner,” Inter Miami Sporting Director Chris Henderson said of Martino last week. “Someone who has won, someone with experience that could come in and be able to take a group and climb the table, make the playoffs this year.”

Climbing the table and getting the team into MLS playoff contention is something Henderson wants fans to expect of Martino, as well as the team’s new signings, and current players who are returning from injury or assignments in the Gold Cup. Indeed, there are a lot of components to the roster that will have to get acclimated to the new-look team, including, of course, Messi.

But that period of acclimation will have to come quickly. While Martino should begin coaching soon, Messi and his former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets, who also agreed to join Inter Miami, will not begin training with the team until later this month.

Those arrivals will have several benefits for a team that is not only in last place, but is in the midst of an injury crisis. In fact, starters like club captain Gregore, Jean Mota, Corentin Jean and Franco Negri have missed time. That has forced Inter to play a number of its youth academy products like Benjamin Cremaschi, David Ruiz and Noah Allen in their places.

“Looking at the young players we’ve been able to play, (it’s been) a great opportunity for them. They’re going to grow through this experience,” Henderson said. “It’s a tough stretch, as a team, but a great opportunity for their growth. So putting all that together, and adding the new additions in the summer, come late August, we’re going to have a different look, a different team. This will give the opportunity for Tata and his staff to work with the players in a new way.”

As tough a process as it’s been at the MLS level for those academy players, they are benefiting from the experience. And they will likely be more comfortable playing around a star like Messi now that they have MLS games under their belt. So, it behooves Inter — and its long-term future — to integrate them now.

New Inter Miami CF coach Gerard “Tata” Martino, who has coached Lionel Messi on the international level before, is awaiting a work visa before he can fully man the MLS sidelines. Photo courtesy of Inter Miami.

“Our plan is to give opportunities to the youth and the academy,” Martino said. “Our intention is to train near the second team, the academy players, and give them opportunities when they deserve it.”

The growth of the academy is a priority for Martino, who wants to assemble a core group of players to compete alongside Messi and Busquets. He knows those two stars will carry their weight — even going so far as to say the two former Barcelona standouts aren’t coming to vacation in the United States — but Martino will need a full club to compete for a title.

“Sometimes, it is associated with the United States,” Martino said, referring to the notion that international stars often land in the MLS for a relaxed lifestyle. “They come from world champions, champions in the Spanish League, they are not footballers who are going to come here not to compete, they are not going to give themselves that luxury because they carry it in their blood and that is what we have come to do.”

Competing as soon as possible would be another new experience Inter Miami would welcome when the Messi era begins. The team has not experienced much success since its inaugural season in 2020 and is coming off a first-round exit in the MLS playoffs last season.

Currently, Inter Miami (5-1-13) sits in last place in the Eastern Conference, having won only five out of 18 games. On Saturday, with Martino on hand, Inter tied Austin FC, 1-1.

The club is going to be short on time to make a major leap when Messi debuts July 21 against Chivas in the Leagues Cup. The buzz will be there, the media will be there, and the crowd — with the least-expensive ticket prices on the secondary market in the $300s — will be there, as well. But will success follow?

“As long as we have possibilities we cannot stop trying,” Martino said of making a postseason push.

Henderson concurs.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” he said. “To raise up in the table game by game.”

Alfredo Banegas is a junior at Florida International University majoring in digital journalism hoping to combine his passion of sports and writing to become a sports writer. Alfredo looks to make positive changes in the way sports are covered in today’s media landscape.