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Will soccer superstar Lionel Messi meet the high expectations of Miami fans?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Lionel Messi is back to doing what he does best. The Argentinian soccer star kicked off the new Major League Soccer season with Inter Miami, squaring off against Real Salt Lake last night. Here he is delivering a smooth assist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Into Messi, through for Robert Taylor. Robert Taylor, saved by Zac MacMath - oh, it's in.

MARTÍNEZ: It was a huge deal when Messi joined Miami last season, but the team didn't make the playoffs. This year, Messi's squad wants to add another trophy to his collection. For more on all this, we're joined by Felipe Cardenas, who covers soccer for The Athletic. Felipe, so Messi started his first MLS season last night - first full MLS season. How'd he look?

FELIPE CARDENAS: He looked good. You know, I think there's - there have been some questions about a hamstring injury that he had that he picked up in the preseason that kept him out of some big matches during Inter Miami's Asia tour. But last night he looked really good. You know, he looked fit, and he really drove the team to that win. It was a - they struggled to defeat RSL because in the end I think Inter Miami is still lacking some depth on the bench, and so they were thin there. But Lionel Messi look like the Messi of old, and he really was the inspiration behind that win last night.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, pressure at Inter Miami is obviously not the same as it is at Barcelona, but what kind of pressure is on him this year?

CARDENAS: Well, yeah, I mean, he - I think a player that has won literally everything, that has completed football, as they say - I don't think there's much pressure you can put on him. You know when he won the World Cup in 2022, that was about it. Like, every pressure that Messi had ever felt was lifted off his shoulders. But, you know, he does still have a legacy to uphold, and that includes coming to America and playing in Major League Soccer. And so now Inter Miami is considered this super team, this team of stars with Messi and his former Barcelona teammates. And it really is MLS Cup or bust in 2024. Now, he does have another year or two on his contract, but it feels like this year is the year that everybody's going to put that pressure on Inter Miami to win. So, you know, I think they will shake it off. Some of the players have said that this week, that they don't really feel pressure. They're just out there to win. They know they have to win games. But I think now everyone will look at Inter Miami as the team to beat, without a doubt, in 2024.

MARTÍNEZ: Here's the thing, though. He's 36 years old. That is kind of up there for a footballer. I mean, should fans expect him to sit out some more games than normal just to keep his legs fresh?

CARDENAS: I think so. You know, that was a big controversy last year when he came into the league in the summer, and you could see around the country the ticket sales were just skyrocketing with people around the country just wanting to just catch a glimpse of Messi. And when he couldn't play, for whatever reason - and it happened in a few stadiums in the United States - you know, there were fans that were really disappointed, heartbroken. And so I think 2024 in particular - and you mentioned his age of 36 - we're going to see that a lot more. And it's not simply due to injury. You know, he may be fit throughout the year, but he has multiple tournaments to play, and it's a 36-game regular season in MLS. There are multiple international cups that they'll participate in. And then this summer there's going to be a Copa America in the United States, so he'll also be part of that with Argentina, defending that championship. So yes, I do believe there are going to be instances this year where Messi will sit out just to rest. Fans will have to get used to that.

MARTÍNEZ: Got to keep the legs springy. That happens to all of us. That's Felipe Cardenas, who covers soccer for The Athletic. Felipe, thanks. Keep your legs fresh, Felipe.

CARDENAS: Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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