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Miller savouring Messi moments with Inter Miami

Lionel Messi and Kamal Miller Inter Miami Lionel Messi and Kamal Miller - KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

Kamal Miller had a unique way of introducing himself to Lionel Messi.

The Canadian central defender made sure to tackle his new Inter Miami teammate – widely regarded as the greatest soccer player ever – in one of Messi’s first Major League Soccer practices in July.

“I got a clean one,” Miller told TSN this week. “Slide tackle, ball, and everybody was like ‘What are you doing? Don’t tackle him like that!’ [Messi] respected that as well. He enjoys training hard. He got up right away and kept running and didn’t make a big deal of it. That was good icebreaker moment for sure.”

Messi’s arrival has been transformative for MLS, and every moment with the World Cup winner – for teammates, opponents, and fans – is becoming a collection of “What did you do?” and “Where were you when…?” moments.

The league is attracting a level of domestic and worldwide attention it hasn’t experienced since English superstar David Beckham moved to the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007.

Once again, Beckham is invested in the league’s success as part of Inter Miami’s ownership group. But the MLS is also apparently providing a lucrative incentive to another superstar brand. Like Beckham —who eventually parlayed his time in MLS into minority ownership — equity is part of Messi’s Miami deal, as he reportedly will receive a cut of the league’s broadcast deal with Apple TV. 

The arrival of Messi ‘the brand’ has clearly been a public relations and business boon. But Messi ‘the player’ has also invigorated a season that looked hopeless.

Before Messi, Inter Miami was one of the worst teams in MLS. Now, with Messi on its roster, Miami won the expanded Leagues Cup competition and has lost just once in its past 13 games in all competitions.

With seven league games remaining on the schedule, Miami is making a playoff push in the Eastern Conference. The club will also play its second cup final, in the US Open Cup against the Houston Dynamo, at the end of the month.

Former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have also arrived alongside Messi, further raising Miami’s play and expectations.

ContentId(1.2009849): Can Messi actually get Miami into the playoffs?

That’s why Miller’s interaction with his superstar teammate quickly evolved from introducing himself physically to protecting the valued asset. The Scarborough, Ont., native earned Messi’s respect early, but was also keen to prove to the Argentine captain just how quickly he’ll rush to protect his teammates.

Anytime any opponent gets too close to Messi, Miller will be right there to stand up for the worldwide legend.

“Guys try to throw Messi off his game, foul him, tackle him hard. [Messi] got another teammate to translate to me, saying he appreciates me always being one of the first ones there to defend him,” Miller said. “But he doesn’t want me to do anything stupid – don’t feel like I have to defend him too much. He enjoys that bodyguard role and sometimes he calls me ‘security,’ so that’s pretty funny.”

Miller compares Messi’s late-July arrival to MLS to a movie and can’t help but smile as he talks about playing with the Barcelona legend. 

“It doesn’t feel real,” said Miller. “Comparing the two halves of the season so far, or however you want to say it – before Messi and after Messi era – has been night and day.”

As a singular force, Messi’s contributions are eye-popping. He’s played 11 games across all competitions, scoring 11 times while adding eight assists. Those 19 goal contributions in 11 games translate to a goal contribution every 47 minutes. For context, the MLS leader in goal contributions this season, FC Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta, is averaging a goal contribution every 89 minutes (24 in 26 games).

If Messi produced at this current pace over a full 34-game season, he’d have 58 goal contributions, more than 22 teams scored all of last season. That’s also 24 more than Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar had in his MLS MVP season last year.

Miller said watching the 36-year-old Messi produce at extraordinary levels has changed Miami’s culture.

“I think as a whole we all stepped up and made the shift, physically and mentally, everything,” Miller said. “Everyone is playing with an edge.”

The sudden change in Miami’s results backs that up.

Miami had just four wins in its first 22 league games, with a goal difference of minus 14. In the 11 games Messi has played since making his debut in the Leagues Cup against Mexican side Cruz Azul on July 21, Miami has seven wins and four draws.

Miami still sits 14th in the Eastern Conference but is just seven points back of the final play-in spot with seven games remaining and two games in hand.

Miller admitted star talent brings the pressure to succeed, but it's Messi’s presence and work ethic, not any demanding attitude, that is making an impression on his new teammates.

“There definitely is pressure, definitely. But it’s a good pressure. We’ve all taken it very well,” Miller said. “They [Messi, Alba, and Busquets] have done a good job easing our pressure, because I’m sure they knew we would be intimidated playing with such greatness and the transition happening so fast.

ContentId(1.2009843): What’s it like playing with Messi?

“We didn’t have a preseason or a time to gel with these players. It was everything on the fly and they made it fun for us. They kept reiterating that they’re here to work hard, compete, and win. But they want to do it in a fun way and build team chemistry and a vibe where everyone feels like they can go out and express themselves, and not necessarily force the ball into them and let them try to get it done. They’ve encouraged everyone to play and step up.”

The rest of Miami’s roster is certainly stepping up. Striker Leonardo Campana has five goals in his past five league games. Eighteen-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi regularly starts and contributes from the midfield, and also recently became the first MLS player to complete the league’s development pathway from MLS NEXT to MLS NEXT Pro to MLS to the U.S. national team.

And Miller had a goal-saving tackle against Mukhtar in a draw against Nashville at the end of August.

“We’re able to focus on our individual assignments. I think that’s what is helping us shine, really,” Miller said.

Not only does Miller have to contend with the league’s best attackers as Miami makes a late-season playoff push, but he’s also navigating Messi requests from friends, family, and members of Canada's men’s national team.

Miller said he receives three messages a week for signed memorabilia or personal messages from Messi.

“Sometimes you have to push some people to the side,” he said. “It’s a bit overwhelming, but there is no other position I’d rather be in. I’m very blessed to be able to play with Leo and that [requests] is definitely expected."

Miller also admits there are members of the Canadian men’s national team who want continuous video updates on how Messi goes about his day at Miami’s facility, but he won’t point fingers.
“I’m not going to out them,” Miller said, smiling. “But they know who they are.”

Messi’s contract runs through the end of the 2025 MLS season, just months before the start of the 2026 World Cup in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The Messi effect on ticket prices, social media, and players connected to Miami is already at a frenzy.

In July, stories linked Andrés Iniesta, Messi’s long-time Barcelona teammate and Spanish World Cup winner, to Miami. Iniesta eventually moved to the United Arab Emirates. Now, stories suggest Atlético Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann is interested in coming to Miami.

The attention and fixation will likely only continue to rise, and Miller said that is another motivating factor for Miami's roster.

“Everybody knows that at any moment there could be a world-class player on the next flight, so you have to keep your game up,” he said.

Miller hasn’t kept secret his desire to play in Europe, but in the final year of his current contract there is clearly incentive for him to extend his time in Miami. 

“I think Miami is definitely creating something exciting here, and in MLS there is probably no better place to be right now than here,” he said. “So, definitely that’s a priority for me to secure my future here. If not overseas, then if I have to stay in MLS this is the place I want to be.”