The whole world is watching Lionel Messi. When Inter Miami CF added the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, and friends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, the MLS club ensured that all eyes would be on the trio of household names.
The early returns suggest that signing Messi to a 2½-year deal, worth as much as $60 million annually, has been worth every penny. The Herons have made another significant investment this summer, though, in signing Tomas Aviles, Facundo Farias and Diego Gomez to U22 initiative deals with transfer fees totaling more than $17m. It’s an eye-opening outlay that borders on the unthinkable considering this team also just happened to sign two players from Barcelona and one from Paris Saint-Germain.
So, what are Gerardo “Tata” Martino & Co. getting in Aviles, Farias and Gomez? And what do their arrivals mean for Miami’s playoff hopes? Tim Vickery and Arch Bell provide their scouting reports and analyze how these three could impact MLS.
Tomas Aviles | 19 | Center back
This 19-year-old defender has had a busy few months. At the start of the year, he represented Chile — he qualifies through a grandmother — in the South American Under-20 Championship. That did not go particularly well, but come that age level’s World Cup in May, he had jumped ship and was playing for his native Argentina.
At club level, though, Racing coach Fernando Gago saw promise in him and gently brought him along, giving him minutes in the league and in the Copa Libertadores. Aviles is still a work in (the early stages of) progress and will have to go down as one for the future.
Facundo Farias | 20 | Attacker
Had he not picked up a cruciate ligament injury, this striker, 21 later this month, probably would have moved on sooner from Colon of Santa Fe, the provincial Argentine club where he made his name. He has certainly left his mark on the institution. Two years ago, he was a part of the side that won the first national title in Colon’s history, and then in 2022 he was even more impressive as the side made a rare appearance in the Copa Libertadores.
Farias has played as a center forward, but his natural position is as a support striker, cutting in from the right flank or playing behind the No. 9. He is stocky, is strong on the ball, sees things quickly and is full of clever little passes that slip teammates in behind the opposing defense.
There is an obvious question here: How will he dovetail with Messi? They would both seem to favor the same space, but with Messi unlikely to play every game, Martino can count on an interesting replacement.
Diego Gomez | 20 | Midfielder
There is an obvious price to pay for getting the Barcelona band back together. If Messi is going to team up successfully with the likes of Busquets and Alba, someone is going to have to do the running. This 20-year-old Paraguay international could help provide the solution.
By nature he is an attacking midfielder, but he has the physical capacity to work box to box. Gomez cuts an imposing figure, tall and strapping with a bit of swagger about him. For Libertad in Paraguay, he operated as part of a central midfield trio, typically as the one with the most freedom to break forward and unleash his thunderbolt shots.
His first-team debut came in May of last year. By August he was already playing for his national team. This is a career that has been travelling fast, ready to catch the Miami express. — Vickery
How these U22s position Miami for MLS Cup
It is important to put into context what the arrival of Inter Miami’s U22 trio of Aviles, Farias and Gomez means for the rest of the season.
In a span of weeks, the South Florida franchise has replaced six of 10 outfield starters, with the likes of Kamal Miller, DeAndre Yedlin, Josef Martinez, Leonardo Campana, Ben Cremaschi and Robert Taylor fighting over the final four outfield places in Martino’s starting XI. Those six new players fall into two pots: First, you have the Messi, Busquets and Alba superstar pot, all arriving as free transfers, and then you have the U22 pot.
This is the collection of players that might hold the key to the team’s chances of getting into the postseason this year and having success in 2024. Aviles will fit in nicely at center back with Miller, Farias likely on the wing opposite Messi, and Gomez in central midfield playing with Busquets. Not too shabby.
What’s significant about this U22 trio is that Inter Miami have splashed some serious cash to make it happen. The Athletic reported that the fee for Farias came in at $5.5 million. Rising defensive star Aviles amounts to a $9m signing, and Gomez is said to have required a transfer fee in the neighborhood of $3m.
That’s an investment of more than $17m in transfer fees alone, although it’s worth noting that, from a salary cap perspective, this is smart business. That’s because U22 transfer fees aren’t accounted for in the budget charge, and with all three of these players 20 or younger, their cap hits come in at just $150,000.
It is hard to find another team in MLS that signs those kinds of checks. You probably won’t find one that splashes that kind of cash for three players who won’t even rank among the top five stars of the team.
This speaks to Inter Miami’s ambition to not only sign a once-in-a-lifetime superstar like Messi and world-class players like Busquets and Alba but also provide the support system to make this a competitive group.
The experience of Martino will be instrumental. He already proved from his Atlanta United days that he knows how to mold a talented group of players and quickly make them a successful unit in MLS. In Miami, the quality of the clay with which he gets to work is infinitely richer.
There is time to make up ground, but margins are thin. When MLS action resumes after the Leagues Cup, Inter will have 12 games remaining and must make up 12 points to get into the ninth and final playoff spot. The schedule doesn’t offer much help, either, with Messi likely to miss at least two matches, if not more, due to international duty with Argentina.
Whether this team will reach the playoffs in 2023 is a different matter, though. Unlike MLS teams of the past that experimented with an aging Big Three signed direct from top European clubs but left too many holes elsewhere on the field — the brief David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andreas Pirlo experiment at New York City FC will never be forgotten — the investment in Aviles, Farias and Gomez to support Messi, Busquets and Alba shows that Inter Miami are willing to fill all the cracks and make Messi’s team not only one to watch but one that can win. — Bell