MIAMI — Tata Martino is an NBA fan. He rarely broadcasts his hidden passion to the world, but give him a nudge and proof will tumble off his tongue. Martino knows, for example, that the Milwaukee Bucks are excellent. He knows that the Washington Wizards stink. And he seems well-versed in a craze that has defined the modern NBA, the “superteam.” Try to explain that American term to the 61-year-old Argentine, and he’ll nod assuredly.
It’s a team full of stars that everyone assumes will win, I told Martino last week, prefacing a question.
“And they don’t always win,” he said, interjecting — and conveniently framing the most novel project of his long, worldly soccer life.
Martino coaches Inter Miami, Major League Soccer’s first true superteam. With Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets and now Luis Suarez, they are the clearest MLS preseason favorite (+200) in at least a decade, and undoubtedly the most-hyped ever. As they ambled onto a training pitch Saturday for their first session of preseason, they glanced right to see around 50 reporters and cameramen gawking.
Later, with privacy mostly restored, they plopped down on two gray benches to unwind. Messi curled up with a drink; Busquets stripped off his sweaty socks; Suarez and Jordi Alba flashed toothy smiles. Shared memories resurfaced. And surrealness sunk in.
But here they were, four friends and serial champions, on a small strip of Florida pavement, in the shadow of a stopgap stadium, amid Fort Lauderdale’s rundown warehouses and repair shops, in MLS.
They are, in many ways, out of place in a league bogged down by modesty and parity. So they are widely expected to dominate it. Their salaries outstrip most entire team payrolls. Their résumés are unlike anything MLS has ever seen. And they did not come here to vacation. “We are very ambitious,” Suarez said Saturday. They’ve come “to dream.” They will enter four distinct competitions in 2024: the league, Leagues Cup, Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions Cup. “And why not dream of winning all four titles?” Suarez pondered aloud.
They very well could, because they, with Inter Miami, boast the most talented roster in MLS history.
Their worry, and their potential downfall, is that it also might be the most lopsided.
They bear an eerie resemblance to NBA superteams, with big names and offensive firepower but lingering defensive flaws.
“In the end, the names are there, the players are there,” Busquets cautioned, “but we have to be a solid team.”
Cobbling together a superteam
Martino is no stranger to superteams. He has watched them rise and fall on television. He has also coached them in Barcelona and Argentina — but in soccer, outside America, the epithet carries much different meaning.
Barcelona once had Messi, Suarez, Busquets and Alba; but also Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Neymar and Gerard Pique, Ivan Rakitic and Javier Masherano, Dani Alves and Pedro, European and World Cup champions.
European soccer has no salary cap, no constraints on superteam construction. So a handful of superclubs hog all the best players. They build well-rounded squads because they can pay a reserve multiples more than a rival’s starter. They dominate a landscape rife with inter-team inequality, not intra.
But MLS, like the NBA, has spending restrictions and convoluted roster rules, both of which are constraining Inter Miami.
The designated player rule allows the Herons to afford Messi and Busquets; a mechanism called Targeted Allocation Money allowed them to sign Alba and Suarez; but other rules prevent them from affording much else.
Miami, as Busquets said, needs defensive solidity; it also needs individual defenders who can handle isolation and compensate for the team’s openness. “We attacked with nine guys at a time. Most of the time, it was just me and the striker one on one, in a 50-yard radius, no one around us,” says Kamal Miller, the team’s top center back in 2023. Miller cleaned up mess after mess, and the club, recognizing his importance, signed him to a contract extension in October.
But it also apparently drifted out of compliance with roster rules. So, in early January — as Miller brushed up on his Spanish, and planned a March proposal to his girlfriend, and prepared to chase Miami’s dreams — the club shipped him to Portland for allocation money, an extra international roster slot and salary cap relief.
So its starting center backs, for now, are 19-year-old Tomás Avilés and the 32-year-old Kryvtsov. The depth chart behind them is thin. Martino said Saturday that signing another central defender is a “priority.” But, with the cap looming, he and sporting director Chris Henderson are limited in their pursuit.
So their team will be top-heavy. It will, of course, still be great. “It’s hard to say they’re not favorites,” New York Red Bulls midfielder Emil Forsberg said last week. And Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar: “If you have Messi on your team, you probably are always the favorite.”
“But,” Mukhtar added, “it’s a team sport.”
Miami’s biggest worry
That, precisely, is what seems to worry Martino. He has seen NBA superteams crumble, perhaps because stars have succumbed to injury, or perhaps because chemistry eludes them all along.
He has also seen the label become a target.
“I know that we’re going to end up finalizing a very good team,” Martino said. “We also know what this generates in our rivals. When the Wizards go to play against Milwaukee, they want to win, because Milwaukee has three or four [players] who are fantastic. So they go, and they compete, and play above their [typical level]. We have to prepare for that.”
They’ll also have to navigate a jam-packed schedule, the same one that sapped Messi’s muscles last fall.
They’ll have to take care of Suarez’s knees, which require three pills and a pain-masking injection before every game.
And they’ll have to cope without Messi (and maybe Suarez) for at least a month, because MLS won’t pause for the June-July Copa América.
They will surely waltz through the regular season. By September, they’ll be on cruise control toward the playoffs. From there, they’d only need to win a few fall games to make good on everyone’s assumptions.
But they’ll still have to win them.
“We have to move away from believing that, by merely combining players, stories and the past, we will [win],” Martino said. “The teams that win are the ones that actually come together.”
That, on Saturday, is what they began to do. They closed their first practice, a physically demanding session, with 20 minutes of pure football. “And it was obvious,” Martino said, that Messi, Suarez, Busquets and Alba “have not forgotten how to play together.”