David Beckham's Inter Miami: What's the latest with his MLS team?
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The vow almost comes too easily from Jorge Mas. He's discussing the fact that the team he co-owns, Inter Miami CF, will be spending its first two seasons not in the Magic City but 35 miles up the coast in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
This has been tried before in MLS with the now-defunct Miami Fusion, but will people make the trek from Miami-Dade County to Broward? Can Inter Miami capture the hearts of a fickle and fragmented sporting public in South Florida? Mas and the ownership group, which includes soccer legend David Beckham, Simon Fuller -- who created the "American Idol" franchise -- Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son and former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure, are hoping so.
"You win, people go," Mas says following last week's MLS Board of Governors meeting near Los Angeles. "We'll win."
When it's pointed out that the Fusion won too, he says, "I know, but it's a little different." Such is Mas' charisma that the impulse is to believe him, but where do things stand with Inter Miami CF on some key points ahead of their 2020 debut?
Wait, why are they playing in Fort Lauderdale?
"They've got an office in Coral Gables. That's all they've got," now retired Sun-Sentinel soccer columnist Jeff Rusnak said of Inter Miami. "They don't have a training facility. They don't have a stadium. They're now under a massive time crunch. This is nuts."
A referendum to build Miami Freedom Park, which will include a 25,000-seat soccer stadium on the site of the Melreese Country Club near Miami International airport, prevailed in November by a comfortable 60-40 margin. In a city that still feels burned from the Marlins Stadium fiasco, one in which the city ended up paying $536 million of the $640 million cost and then had to sell bonds to pay what was owed, that's no small feat.
Despite the star power of Beckham, the club has encountered more obstacles than a competitor on "American Ninja Warrior" in its quest for a home. The Melreese Country Club is its fifth attempt to find a suitable site for a stadium. The deal isn't done, either: Mas and his group still need to negotiate a 99-year lease with the Miami City Commission and obtain approval from four of the five commissioners. Two commissioners, Manolo Reyes and Willy Gort (in whose district the site is located), are already on record as being against the project.
The venue won't be completed until the 2022 campaign, and Mas struck a deal in Fort Lauderdale to demolish the old Lockhart Stadium, replacing it with a training facility and an 18,000-seat stadium. Playing in Fort Lauderdale and basing some operations there would have its advantages in terms of location and would provide leverage in any kind of negotiation with the city of Miami over the stadium site, but that also runs the risk of sending mixed messages.
"You branded your team from day one as Miami. I think you need to play your MLS games in the city you're named after," said Piet Brown, who is a founding member of the fan group the Southern Legion and runs a YouTube channel called Futbol Miami TV. "I went to all the Miami Fusion games, and it feels like there's a few similarities. Lockhart's not the reason that the Fusion failed, but being named 'Miami' and playing in Fort Lauderdale sure didn't help."
The timeline to get a redeveloped Lockhart Stadium and training facility up and running by the start of the 2020 season is hugely aggressive. Yet there is a sense that if anyone can pull this off, Mas and his group can.
"Mas is sort of like the big brother saying everything is going to be OK," said Dr. Jim Riordan, the director of the MBA in sport management program at Florida Atlantic University.
Inter Miami has certainly been laying the groundwork to get the lease for the Melreese site negotiated. Mas said Inter Miami had held 10 meetings in the past month and has "touched and spoken to around 1,000 people" in those gatherings. Mas anticipates being able to bring the lease before the City Commission in the next month. As for the votes, Mas is confident that he'll prevail on that front as well.
"It's too compelling," he said of the Melreese project. "The community is clamoring for it, and the community has said yes."
Does Inter Miami CF have a staff yet?
Skeptical observers such as Rusnak, who have heard every promise and every lie about the viability of professional soccer in South Florida over the years, feel cautiously optimistic about Mas' ability to deliver.
"Mas is a force of nature. If he's wrong and he's a forceful personality, it will go down the drain like all the others," Rusnak said. "But he's proven to be open and savvy."
That is especially the case in terms of the organization currently being built by Mas and Beckham. Jurgen Mainka was hired as the chief business officer after a stint with CONCACAF. Paul McDonough was spirited away from reigning MLS champions Atlanta United to be the sporting director; he brought in former Orlando City GM Niki Budalic and former LA Galaxy player personnel director Kurt Schmid to help put the roster together.
Jason Kreis has been hired to be part of the coaching staff, though his commitment to the U.S. U-23 team will limit his availability over the next year. Juan Carlos Michia, Victor Pastora and former Real Salt Lake midfielder Javier Morales were brought on as academy coaches.
The search for the first manager is ongoing, with McDonough expecting the hire to be made in September or October. Mas and Beckham have been involved in the process, and candidates from inside and outside MLS have been interviewed.
"I'm going to patient with it. I'm not in a rush," McDonough said of the timeframe for hiring a manager. "I think it's more about signing the right guy. I think the hard part was you saw what Tata [Martino] was and what he did in Atlanta and how it worked out. There have been similar guys who were big names and haven't done well.
"I think it's really more important for us that we find the right person that I can work with and build the club as we move forward."
Who's going to play for this team?
This is the third time McDonough has been charged with building a technical organization and roster ahead of an expansion season. In Orlando, he had the advantage of an entrenched USL side as a springboard for an MLS team. In Atlanta, he was starting from scratch. What's different about Miami is the extent of the diversity in the fan base.
"What I tell them all the time is, 'Look, the Colombians, the Salvadorans, the Haitians, they'll all cheer for a really good player, no matter where he's from because they're all smart soccer fans, and they want good soccer,'" McDonough said.
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McDonough will be hoping to replicate in Miami what he did in Atlanta, and given that the academy season starts in August, that is where he has focused his initial efforts.
"I either had to start [the academy] six months early or six months later than the first team," he said. "And I just think to get the homegrowns and get it all going, it made sense to get the jump start because, look, it doesn't really affect me in year one, but it's going to affect me in year three, so the sooner I can get it going, I can get to year three faster."
How involved is David Beckham?
Beckham's title is director of soccer operations, but as the face of the organization, his remit is broader than that. He is involved not only on the technical side but also with partnerships and anything related to merchandise. He has been making periodic visits to South Florida as well, including twice in the past six weeks.
McDonough confirmed that he and Beckham are setting the direction of the club in terms of style and that the hiring of a coach and the signing of players will be determined based on that style. Like he did in Atlanta, signing players will happen before a manager is hired, with the first announced before the summer. Those players will likely be loaned out until the 2020 season.
As for the rumored links with Mexican defender Hector Moreno, McDonough said, "We have not had discussions with Moreno or his representatives."
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McDonough was vague as to what the club's style would be, trotting out the standard line of "We'll play attacking soccer." But given that Miami is often viewed as a gateway to Latin America and McDonough's history with Atlanta, it's not a reach to think the team will have a heavy influence of South American players, though he will also cast a wide net. Beckham's magnetism doesn't hurt, either.
"I think South American players really translate well here," he said. "I think the one thing about Miami -- and it's similar to New York and L.A. -- is that it's a global city. So European players, you pick the phone up, and you call a European player, and you say, 'Hey, you've been playing in England or Germany, and I want to bring you to Miami,' they're going to listen.
Will Inter Miami be forced to change its name?
Complicating Inter Miami's path to the pitch have been some recent issues in court.
FXE Futbol, whose competing bid to renovate Lockhart Stadium was rejected, recently filed suit in Broward County court, alleging that the City of Fort Lauderdale failed to adhere to Florida state law as it relates to unsolicited offers for the development of public land by a private entity by not getting "an architect, landscape architect, or an engineer licensed in this state" to review the proposals. State law also requires an "independent analysis" to demonstrate the public-private partnership's cost-effectiveness.
"We can no longer stand on the sidelines while our due process is being violated," FXE's managing partner, John F. Reynal, said in a statement posted by the company on Twitter.
As for the trademark dispute, last month MLS filed a notice of opposition to an application Inter Milan made back in 2014 seeking to claim exclusive rights to the term "Inter." Mas expects that the latest lawsuit won't hamper his plans in Fort Lauderdale, nor is he concerned about the trademark spat with Inter Milan.
As Mas noted dryly, "There's going to be no confusion over Inter Milan and Inter Miami."
Yet there is a haunting sense of déjà vu in terms of the move -- however temporary -- to Fort Lauderdale.
"In South Florida, you make judgments about how far will I drive to see something," Rusnak said. "I'll do anything if it takes me 15 minutes. If it's an hour, it better be really worth my while. I think there's a Balkanization a little bit down here, like this invisible line between Dade and Broward County. We do get into this mentality of it 'being up there' or 'being down there.' And the density of the traffic keeps getting thicker and thicker, and there's a general frustration down here that driving takes more time than it should."
The reality is that what happens in the courtroom and city hall will be just as important as anything the team does to get ready on the pitch. It will take every bit of Mas' business acumen and the team-building powers of McDonough & Co. to make Inter Miami a success.