Lionel Messi wasn’t seen at MLS media day. Doesn’t matter, since everyone talked about him

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi was not visible at Major League Soccer’s annual media day on Thursday. His shadow was.

Messi is entering his first full season with Inter Miami, which creates an obvious storyline that seems to be on everyone’s mind as MLS teams enter their preseason training camps. And a franchise that hasn’t come close to winning an MLS Cup — and didn’t even make the playoffs last season, even with Messi around for the last few months — suddenly seems like a frontrunner entering 2024.

So, yes, Messimania continues, with no signs of slowing down.

“Even as an opposition coach, everyone’s looking in the calendar for the Miami game,” Toronto coach John Herdman said. “I mean, it’s a really exciting time for MLS to have the best player, in my opinion, who ever played the game in this league. … The league has got some of the best facilities, some of the best fan bases, and now we’ve got the best player ever playing the game, so it’s the place to be.”

Inter Miami went through a complete revamping last season, not only adding Messi but also bringing Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino aboard — and then reuniting Messi with another of his former Barcelona teammates in Luis Suarez last month.

It worked, to a point. The team won Leagues Cup for its first-ever trophy, but injuries — including one sidelining Messi — took a toll and Inter Miami didn’t make the MLS playoffs. Now, Inter Miami gets a full season of Messi, Busquets, Alba and Suarez together, and it’s reasonable to expect far more success.

“He’s obviously one of the greatest to ever do it,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe of the reigning MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew said of Messi. “He’s got a great coach in Tata, who I worked with in Atlanta. Definitely looking forward to big things from them and how they’re going to impact the league. I definitely expect them to be in the running for MLS Cup and all the competitions that they’re in. It just makes the league better, makes the players better, draws more players that want to come to the league and be a part of it.”

Messi is, by far, the league’s biggest drawing card — ever. That’s not in dispute, with him now being an eight-time Ballon d’Or winner after picking up yet another of those trophies late last year and still being the leader of reigning World Cup champion Argentina. His presence drew more eyeballs to MLS than ever before, his jersey rocketed to No. 1 on the MLS sales list, tickets to Inter Miami matches became the hottest in the league and him picking the league gave it a certain added level of legitimacy that some in the global soccer world might not have seen beforehand.

To think what could happen if Messimania reaches the playoffs in 2024.

“As soon as he came to MLS, there was interest, interest from supporters, interest from coaches from all around the world,” new Charlotte FC coach Dean Smith said. “And that’s not going to lessen. He was lifting the World Cup only 14, 15 months ago. It was a big coup for the league and it certainly, I think, changed everybody’s aspects on the MLS now.”

The core four of Inter Miami is not young, of course. Suarez turns 37 later this month. Messi turns 37 in June. Busquets turns 36 in July. Alba turns 35 in March. It will be a daunting grind between basically an around-the-world preseason trip to Saudi Arabia and Japan, all the national team responsibilities, Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions Cup — and the 34-game MLS regular season.

That said, nobody seems to be betting against them — not even those who’ll play against them. Such is the power of Messi.

“I mean, when you look at those four players and what they’ve achieved together, it’s hard to say they’re not favorites,” New York Red Bulls midfielder Emil Forsberg said. “Fantastic team, fantastic players. And they know what to do and how to win. … I would also say a little bit that Miami are the favorites when you look at the players they have.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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