After six years of delays, Inter Miami will play their first-ever league game this weekend. There are still obstacles to overcome though
Two-thousand, two-hundred and sixteen days after David Beckham arrived in Miami promising to establish a Major League Soccer team, there will finally be football.
Club Internacional de Ftbol Miami or Inter Miami will play their first competitive game on Sunday, following six years of excruciating (and ongoing) wrangling over stadium sites, investment capital, and pleas to MLS bosses not to pull the plug on the entire project.
The leagues 25th franchise, part-owned by the former England captain, will travel to California to play Los Angeles FC for the curtain raiser, then head to DC United, before hosting LA Galaxy in their home opener on 14 March.
It was Beckhams shock decision to sign for the Galaxy at just 31 that led us here. His playing contract included the option to purchase a new MLS franchise for just $25m, when the going rate now is reported to be around $325m. He put the league on the map and stashed that golden ticket next to his golden you-know-whats.
Miami was the only choice for this new team, the midfielder said when he rocked up in January 2014 and it was easy to see why. The initial Miami Beckham United group envisioned kicking-off the 2018 MLS season in a brand new 25,000-seater stadium in the glitzy downtown waterfront area of one of Americas most famous cities.
The local government had promised the group prime real-estate for a 100% privately funded stadium. Fans, starved of a professional soccer team since 2001, would march to the match, European style, to an arena overlooking Miamis skyline. It looked and sounded amazing. It was also a complete non-starter.
Thanks to objections from the all-powerful cruise lines and political apprehension regarding stadium projects, downtown Miami quickly dropped off the agenda. In fact, so has Miami itself, for the time being. Inter Miami will kick-off their inaugural season 35 miles away in Fort Lauderdale in a hastily-erected 18,000-seat stadium next to the teams training complex.
The team want to build a permanent home on a golf course near the Miami International Airport. The 25,000-seater stadium could be ready by 2022, but the lease is still pending and the land itself is contaminated with arsenic. And on we go.
The Freedom Park project came after the team abandoned a hard-won, last chance plot in the citys unglamorous Overtown district in 2018. Before that the old Orange Bowl site next door to the Marlins Park baseball arena was agreed with the city before it too was dropped.
Years of these stadium snafus threatened to cost Beckham his Miami dream, as he sought to raise cash to privately fund every penny of the new home. As far back as 2015, MLS was losing patience with the impasse. That May, commissioner Don Garber told Goal.com: I believe that there is a possibility for us to be in Miami, but it does need to be right. Just because an opportunity exists doesnt mean that were going to close on that deal, because we want to be sure that any new team has the opportunity to be successful.
When the hurdles seemed insurmountable, fresh investment from construction magnates and Miami natives Jorge (now lead managing owner) and Jose Mas brought new impetus and convinced MLS to officially award Miami the franchise in January 2018.
There were times we sat back and said this is not going to happen. Its too difficult. There are too many bumps in the road. But I dont give up, an emotional Beckham said at the time.
Team name, colours and a crest soon followed. And now green grass, white lines, nets, goalposts and a football. The arguments about where the team will play can, for now, switch to who is going to play.
What can we expect from Inter Miami, the football team? Firstly, they will be managed by Diego Alonso, a 44-year-old Uruguayan who has enjoyed Concacaf Champions League success as a coach with Monterrey and Pachuca in Mexicos Liga MX. He was fired from the former last September.
On the playing side, president of soccer operations Beckham and his sporting director Paul McDonough (hired from Atlanta United), are believed to be on the lookout for a big name from one of the major European Leagues.
I think Miami needs a star, Beckham said at an event to rubber stamp the franchise two years ago. You have to realise the audience we have and Miami would expect us to bring in a star. Thats what we plan on doing.
Rumours persist that Manchester Citys David Silva may be signed when his contract expires this summer. Best case, that means missing the first three months of the season. The PSG forward Edinson Cavani is also reported to be on the wish list, but the same restriction applies.
Any such signing would command a lucrative Designated Player deal. Each MLS team is allowed to sign three players whose salaries dont count against the teams overall cap ($5.3m in 2020). Appropriately nicknamed the Beckham Rule, because of the wage he required to join LA Galaxy, its designed to help clubs compete for talent with the football superpowers in Europe.
One spot has already been allocated to attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who played under Alonso at Monterrey and has been capped 25 times by Mexico. He scored the teams first-ever goal in a pre-season friendly and, at 26, is still on the upswing of his career. Argentina Under-20 winger Matias Pellegrini has the second DP spot. The third remains open, but for whom? One senses it will be important.
Despite the local fervor for a professional football team (the Southern Legion group had a Miami MLS supporters club way before Beckham even floated the idea), this is an event town.
Tickets for the home opener sold out before reaching general sale, but the novelty of having a team even one owned by a global superstar will wear off if Inter Miami perform poorly.
As Beckham himself acknowledges, Inter Miami will need well-known, exciting players, playing in a competitive team to be successful. Even the beloved but woeful Miami Dolphins arent immune to fans voting with their wallets.
It will not be lost on the club that professional soccer has already failed here, when the Miami Fusion MLS team folded in 2001. But that was also a different era. We were going through massive trauma and probably closer to closing the league down than most people realise, commissioner Don Garber told the Guardian in 2018.
Beckhams arrival assisted the leagues rebirth and MLS continues to grow in popularity, across major metrics. During the 2018 season, average MLS attendances (21,358) were eighth in the world, slightly trailing Frances Ligue 1 (21,556) and Italys Serie A (22,967), according to Football Observatory. Thanks to the unstoppable US womens team and wide availability of the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and MLS on US TV, more people than ever are watching football at home.
However, for Inter Miami, even with a football-mad Hispanic community for whom the team is named, relying on increased appetite for the sport wont be enough. Engaging the local community will be key to keeping the punters coming.
Its something the Miami Heat basketball team have always done particularly well. The result is a loyal fanbase, despite recent transitional seasons when the team have missed the playoffs. The early signs from Inter are good too. The club has committed to building a world-class academy for local young players, and six academy teams are already playing games.
But fostering that sense of belonging will be difficult while Inter Miami have to play in a stop-gap stadium, in an out-of-the-way area of a completely different city, for at least two years. The question is, despite the name, will Miami fans feel like this is really their team?