(CNN) — When Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami in July 2023, along with former Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, the team was languishing in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference.

While Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain led Miami to the Leagues Cup title – the first trophy in the franchise’s history – the team endured mixed fortunes in MLS, winning just four of the 12 games following Messi’s arrival, though he only played in half of those due to injury.

However, with the benefit of an entire preseason to prepare with his new team, it’s likely Messi’s presence will be felt more keenly on the pitch this campaign, which gets under way on Wednesday as Miami hosts Real Salt Lake.

How to watch the MLS season opener

The MLS season opener between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake kicks off at 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast in the US and UK on Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass, following the 10-year streaming deal signed in 2022 between MLS and the technology company.

A star-laden Miami side

Miami is also boosted by the arrival of another former superstar teammate of Messi at Barcelona, Luis Suárez.

The Uruguayan arrived in a buoyant mood after a prolific season with Gremio in Brazil, asking during the preseason: “Why wouldn’t we dream of winning all four titles this year?”

In total, there will be five major trophies for Messi and co. to get their hands on this season: the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the MLS Cup, the US Open Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League and the Leagues Cup.

If facing this former Barcelona quartet wasn’t daunting enough, Inter Miami head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino stated after Suárez’s first training session with the team that “they haven’t forgotten how to play together.”

Days before the MLS season began, league commissioner Don Garber said he believed Miami could still add more superstar firepower to its squad.

“It’s important to remind ourselves and everybody else that having arguably the best player of all time in our league says a lot about where MLS is and how far it’s come over the years,” Garber told ESPN.

“And I don’t think Miami is stopping, right? Signing Luis Suárez and putting together a bunch of guys that Leo has played with for so many years, I think is fun. It’s exciting and I think we’re going to see just more energy and lots more attention in year two.”

Messi’s arrival has led to a huge rise in ticket sales and prices across the league, but questions are already being asked about how MLS plans to turn short-term profits into long-term interest in the league after the Argentine has left.

Additionally, Garber is currently dealing with an ongoing dispute with the league’s referees, who rejected a new collective bargaining deal and are holding a referee lockout, meaning stand-in referees will be used to begin the season.

Title contenders

The vast majority of the eyes on MLS this season are there for Messi, and there is little the league can do to change that fact.

However, there are a number of teams this season which will likely have a better chance of winning one of the three domestic titles on offer than Inter Miami.

Chief among them is defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew, which caught the eye with an attractive, attacking style of soccer throughout the course of the regular season, but in particular during the playoffs.

In only his first season at the club, French head coach Wilfried Nancy has taken the reins with confidence in Ohio, becoming one of the most impressive and highly regarded young managers in the league.

FC Cincinnati will likely challenge once again after winning the Supporters’ Shield last season for the best regular season record and, in 2023 league MVP Luciano Acosta, the team has its own special Argentine No. 10.

Garber said he is “not concerned about it at all” that Messi’s presence in the league will detract from other teams, players and stories.

“We’re trying to always open up our teams and our league to those people that are fans of the sport that might not yet be fully committed to our clubs, and getting people here and around the world to follow MLS and experience it is a positive,” he added.

“Our job is to convert those fans into being passionate supporters of our league and our clubs and if we have a brand that has global recognition like Inter Miami does, that’s a positive.

“And I think you see that with clubs that are resonating around the world in all leagues.”

The hype of Messi and Inter Miami

Ahead of Messi’s first full season, the Miami Herald asked whether retail chain Target should be the sponsor for the back of the team’s jersey this season “as every opponent will be aiming for Messi’s team wherever they go.”

In total, Messi and Inter Miami appear in all 25 of the best-selling games on StubHub for the upcoming season.

Writing for ESPN, Luis Miguel Echegaray said he doesn’t see Inter Miami winning the Eastern Conference.

“And that’s OK for manager Tata Martino because I think his top objective – aside from a good run in the Champions Cup – is to make the playoffs,” he added. “Anything after that is a bonus.”

GOAL.com’s Ryan Tolmich said that “no MLS season has had this much hype.”

“And no team has been under the microscope more than Inter Miami,” he added. “Anything less than transcendent success won’t cut it for a club that is now built upon a promise of more.”

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