Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi takes a free kick during...

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi takes a free kick during the first half of the team's MLS soccer match against Real Salt Lake, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Messi had two Real Salt Lake defenders on either side of him, two more a few yards in front of him. He quickly tapped the ball away from them all with his left foot, to a spot where only teammate Robert Taylor could reach.

Moments later, Inter Miami had the first goal of the Major League Soccer season.

Taylor's goal in the 39th minute set the tone, Diego Gómez added an insurance score in the 83rd minute and Inter Miami — to start Messi's first full season with the club — opened the 29th season of MLS with a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night.

Messi was in midseason form, darting through and around defenders, almost giving the sellout crowd what they wanted to see by nearly scoring on a free kick and then a corner kick midway through the first half.

“I think the eyes of the world are on Inter Miami, and I’m hoping that they’re able to deliver on that and whatever expectations people have,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who was at Wednesday’s match. “Mostly, I’d just like his experience to be good, the experience of the team to be successful, how they’re positioned both here in the league but also around the world. That’s the story that I think is most important to us.”

Messi had 11 goals in 14 total matches with Inter Miami last season, leading the team to a Leagues Cup championship — its first-ever trophy — shortly after he stunned much of the soccer world by signing a 2 1/2-year contract worth around $150 million. He appeared in only six MLS matches in 2023, scoring once. Injuries slowed him late in the 2023 season and Inter Miami, which was way out of the postseason picture when Messi joined last summer, didn't make the MLS playoffs.

But the craze surrounding him is not fading. The lines for fans to buy his jersey, which was MLS' top-seller last year and has a new sponsor design this year, was out the door of the team store. He had the assist on the first goal and set up Luis Suarez — one of his former Barcelona teammates, like fellow Inter Miami stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — with the pass that Suarez turned into the assist on Gómez's goal.

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, left, kicks the ball during...

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, left, kicks the ball during the first half of the team's MLS soccer match against Real Salt Lake, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

“I'm so happy,” Suarez said.

They looked every bit like a contender. That wasn't the case in the exhibition season.

Inter Miami started its season with an international preseason tour with seven matches in five different countries — netting roughly 25,000 miles of travel, a total of eight goals, multiple apologies to refund-seeking fans after Messi missed a game in Hong Kong because of injury, and just one win.

But they completely controlled the first half of Wednesday's match against a team that comfortably made the Western Conference playoffs last season. Messi even flicked the ball around Salt Lake defender Andrew Brody who was injured and down near the top of the penalty box late in the half, weaving around him with ease. Brody was able to stay in the game.

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, front, controls the ball as...

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, front, controls the ball as Real Salt Lake midfielder Pablo Ruiz defends during the first half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

“If anybody had been skeptical about what this team can do, I think the first half showed them,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said.

Inter Miami, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, enters the season as the favorite to win just about everything. Messi’s team is listed as the 5-2 favorite to win the MLS Cup, while Messi and Suarez are the top two picks to win the Golden Boot — given to the league’s leading scorer.

The club is basically an even-money favorite to win the Supporters Shield as MLS' top regular-season club. And if someone wagered $200 on Inter Miami making the Eastern Conference playoffs right now, that bettor would stand to profit exactly $1 if Messi's club makes the field — meaning it is considered to be an absolute postseason lock.

It should be noted that the club has yet to win a playoff match. Inter Miami has been to the playoffs twice, getting eliminated right away on both occasions, both times by 3-0 scores.

“You don't have to jump the gun," Martino said. “It was just one game.”

But Messi moves the needle — every needle — that much. He turns 37 in June and the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner still attracts attention, on and off the field, like almost no one else in sports. Apple TV released the first episode of “Messi's World Cup: The Rise of a Legend” on Wednesday, and the streaming service (which has a 10-year deal worth at least $2.5 billion with MLS) was part of the group that pitched Messi during his process of deciding whether to join the league last year.

Apple hasn't released numbers, but senior vice president Eddy Cue said Wednesday that he was “shocked” by how successful Year 1 of Messi in MLS was.

“We had a tremendous first season,” Cue said. "The amount of viewership was way over what we ever expected. The amount of time that people were watching games is more than any sport that I’ve seen.”

Messi Mania continues. And Year 2 has win No. 1.

More soccer news

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months
ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME