NEW YORK — Part of the reason there’s so much fanfare surrounding MLS’ 25th season is the addition of two expansion franchises. One, Nashville SC, fell in its debut on Saturday night, a 2-1 home loss against Atlanta United in which Nashville fought valiantly but couldn’t quite take down the former champions. The other, Inter Miami CF, begins its campaign on Sunday, capping off a years-long process to bring the beautiful game to South Florida.
There was immense buzz around MLS back when David Beckham came to the United States from Real Madrid in 2007. One of the biggest footballers in the world joining the league during his prime, Beckham brought numerous eyeballs to MLS during his tenure as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy, but thanks to a clause in his contract that let him purchase stake in a team at a discount, his association with the league extended well into retirement.
Beckham exercised this clause in 2014, purchasing a $25 million stake in an expansion club. As for which club that was going to end up being, well, that was a bit more complex, and that lengthy process made it so Beckham’s definition of a successful year in Miami doesn’t necessarily involve a dream debut.
“Someone turned around to me the other day and said, ‘What is success for you?'” Beckham said at the league’s 25th season kickoff celebration event in New York on Wednesday, the sheepish grin that has become as much of a trademark for the English superstar as his wicked free kicks stretched across his face. “Success for me, personally, is when we kick that ball on the 14th of March, in our stadium, in our city, that’s success. Now, I would like to win a trophy or two, obviously, so yes, that’s even more success. But I think the fact that we have done what we’ve done and we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved, that’s success.”
Beckham openly admitted, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, that this entire project taught him about his own persistence and stubbornness above all else, while also conceding that there were plenty of doubts about whether things would come to fruition. But in Jan. 2018, MLS announced that Beckham’s ownership group would bring a team to Miami, a major mile marker in the years-long process.
“I didn’t realize how big of a challenge it was going to be when we announced seven years ago,” Beckham said. “I thought, ‘You know, it’ll take one or two years and we’ll be playing in the league with a stadium, we’ll have great players,’ but it took slightly longer than that.”
“I have this theory that that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I think about that in life and in business, and the Miami project was one that really tested us, it tested our courage, it tested our commitment, and it tested our belief,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said with a laugh. “This idea that Major League Soccer can be successful anywhere and everywhere, we just have to have the right ownership group, the right stadium plan, we have to have the right brand and the relationship with the community.”
The challenges to get to this point, as Beckham tells it, involved things like finding a piece of land for a stadium and talking to politicians about navigating through red tape. While he has plenty of clout in the footballing world, the nitty gritty of getting a team off the ground takes a certain kind of expertise, especially when it comes to getting things done in a community which he doesn’t intrinsically know.
Enter Jorge Mas, the chairman of MasTech and a native of Miami. Mas and his brother, Jose, are part of the team’s ownership group, with Jorge serving as the managing owner. As Beckham tells it, Mas reached out via email about potentially hopping on board with the project, and following a meeting in Kansas City — Beckham stressed twice that it was “freezing” — Beckham knew this relationship was going to work out.
“I didn’t want to be in partnership with someone that was just doing this for a vanity reason, because I wasn’t doing it for that,” Beckham said. “I was doing it because I want a legacy in the game and I want to be able to create a legacy in the game that my children can turn around in 20 years and say, ‘My dad built this club, my dad helped build this club.’ And that was what the Mas family was about, it was what Jorge and Jose was about. It’s about family, it’s about giving back to the community, giving back to Miami, giving back to a city that has given them and their family so much, and the respect that their family has within Miami is incredible.”
“I, frankly, am born and bred in Miami, I didn’t know that we had something so special,” Mas said. “And I think that our team, we know there’s great teams in Miami — the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and hockey — but I think we have something different. I think the emotion and passion that goes with soccer in Miami, I think will be reflected not only in our community, but I think where the league and teams are going to wanna be in the future.”
While the team doesn’t have a permanent home stadium just yet — they’ll play at Inter Miami CF Stadium, formerly Lockhart Stadium, in Fort Lauderdale for the next two years until Miami Freedom Park is completed in time for the 2022 campaign — most everything else has fallen into place quite nicely ahead of their first campaign. The academy, Beckham says, has 160 youngsters in it. Their captain, goalkeeper Luis Robles, is one of the best in league history and came to the side from New York Red Bulls.
Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro and promising young Argentine Matías Pellegrini are the team’s designated players and will look to bring excitement to the team’s midfield, while the side is reinforced with a handful of longtime MLSers who have some international experience, like American midfielder Wil Trapp and Panamanian center back Román Torres. The team can still bring on one more designated player, a rule that was created as an avenue for Beckham to come play in the league that allows teams to sign up to three players who do not impact a side’s salary cap, and there have been rumors that promising Argentinian midfielder Agustin Almendra could join the side from Boca Juniors at some point.
In the meantime, Sunday will serve as the club’s introduction to MLS. They’ll travel to Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles to take on the best team in the league, LAFC, and take their home pitch for the first time on March 14, when they’ll host the Galaxy. An expansion side two years ago, LAFC (along with Atlanta) is now the gold standard for an expansion club, something Beckham articulated in New York.
“They’ve created a culture within their club that every team wants to create, it’s what we all want to do,” Beckham said. “So yes, the bar has been set very high. This is where the league is right now, that’s what we want to achieve, and we want to be known as one of the most feared franchises and one of the best franchises in the league, and we hope to do that.”
Beckham joked that it’s “very nice of the league to give us an easy game” right away against Carlos Vela and co. He smiled as he said that, and for the entirety of his conversation with ESPN’s Antonietta Collins, that grin was etched on his face. There’s finally a light at the end of such a lengthy tunnel for Inter Miami CF, which is certainly something to smile about.