Inside the Messi roadshow: How Inter Miami prepared for its first away game of a new era (2024)

Minutes after a 4-4 draw, late Lionel Messi heroics and ultimately a penalty kick win for Inter Miami in the Leagues Cup over FC Dallas, chaos pulsated through the corridors of a sold-out Toyota Stadium. That’s when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham emerged from the suite level on the west side of the stadium and descended a staircase.

To this point in Messi’s tenure in the U.S., the chaos that swirled around him and the rest of Inter Miami had largely been a well-choreographed ballet of celebrity and security. What waited for Beckham at the bottom of the stairs was a relatively uncontrolled scenario that would necessitate improvisation.


The design of FC Dallas’s home stadium, which opened in 2005, is such that the suite level is not connected to the locker room areas. The idea of needing to accommodate pathways for celebrities to get from suites to the locker rooms and then out through private exits simply wasn’t a part of the MLS equation when the stadium was designed and built. At DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, opened in 2020, Beckham can walk from his on-field suite down a VIP hallway to the locker room, or straight to a loading dock and into his waiting black SUV.

There would be no such easy exit this time around; no way for Miami’s owners to get to the team without walking through the streams of fans who were leaving their seats and heading toward the exits.

As Beckham reached the corridor, despite the best efforts of a few Inter Miami employeesand eventually some security guards and police officers, the former England captain was mobbed by fans who followed him, phones raised, jumping to get a glance at a megastar. Beckham eventually reached the safety of the glass doors of the attached National Soccer Hall of Fame, where he could be guided down to the locker rooms.

Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham got absolutely mobbed trying to get from the owners’ suite over to the team locker room. Dozens of people followed him along the concourse as Inter Miami staffers and others tried to provide a human shield. Crazy scenes.

— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) August 7, 2023

Thankfully, there were no other hiccups of which to speak on Sunday. More than 100 security guards circled the field before, during and after the game. The extra security was similar to the measures Miami had taken at home, with extra security guards added and changes to the team’s pre- and postgame routines, with players taking a bus to and from the training facility that sits just a few hundred yards from the stadium.


In Dallas, as in Fort Lauderdale, Messi waved at fans from a distance. Then he gave them the show they came to see.

After scoring twice, including an exquisite free kick that pulled Inter Miami even in the final stages of the game, Messi celebrated with his team after the penalty-kick win, exchanged shirts with FC Dallas’s Argentine winger Alan Velasco, took pictures with several other FC Dallas players and then eventually headed back into the locker room. Six minutes after midnight, long after the stadium emptied, Messi walked from the locker rooms to the tunnel on the opposite side of the stadium where the team bus waited to take him to a charter flight headed home to South Florida. He was accompanied by six police officers, a bodyguard and several other Inter Miami staffers.

Beckham’s journey aside, the first test of the Messi roadshow was a success.

It was also a demonstration of the excitement — and challenges — that will follow Inter Miami to every MLS market in which it plays this season. Fans around the country are waiting for their chance to see a legend in-person, in the stadiums and anywhere else they might be able to find him.

Inside the Messi roadshow: How Inter Miami prepared for its first away game of a new era (1)

Kevin Mercau waited in the hotel lobby for hours for a glimpse of Messi (Paul Tenorio)

Kevin Mercau was at his home in Las Colinas, Texas on Saturday afternoon when he got a call from a friend who was making a delivery to a hotel about 25 minutes away.

The hotel was setting up for something special near the delivery entrance, the friend said. Messi and Inter Miami were arriving at that hotel soon.

Mercau, 28, whose family moved to the U.S. from Argentina when he was five years old, jumped in his Range Rover with his brother, Brandon, and booked it to the hotel about 15 minutes outside of Frisco, where Messi and Inter Miami were set to play FC Dallas the next day. He got to the lobby around 1 p.m. and waited. Four hours later, the Inter Miami buses pulled into the hotel, led by a police escort.


At a back entrance, police officers and security guards patrolled the area. They warned any fans who jumped the barriers that they would be criminally trespassed. Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, among other Inter Miami players, exited the bus and headed into the back entrance. Just one fan tried his luck in getting close to Messi. He was snagged and handcuffed. The incident didn’t feel too dissimilar from a failed pitch invader. A Plano police public information officer told The Athletic on Saturday night that the fan was detained, criminally trespassed and released. Criminal trespassing in Texas is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable with up to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

Twenty minutes later, the Mercau brothers sat in the lobby still hoping they might get a glimpse of their hero. All around them, fans in Argentina and Barcelona jerseys milled about. Two Plano police officers and two security guards stood watch near the elevator bank. Kevin Mercau lifted up his left shirt sleeve to show a tattoo of Messi. The date Argentina won the World Cup was inked underneath.

“We came here for the journey (to see Messi),” Kevin said. “It didn’t happen. But it was worth the try.”

Messi’s arrival to the U.S. has prompted thousands of fans to buy tickets for a chance to see him play. Prices have gone through the roof as a result. In Dallas, tickets for Sunday’s game sold out in less than 20 minutes and prices on the secondary market jumped as high as $9,000.

This weekend’s trip to Texas marked Messi’s first away game since joining Inter Miami, and it put MLS, Miami and FC Dallas’s security to the test. The degree of difficulty was upped by the fact that, due to the format of the Leagues Cup, Miami didn’t know it was going on the road to Dallas to play on Sunday until late Wednesday night when both teams’ results in the previous round were finalized.

The scene in the hotel lobby was evidence of why Messi hitting the road will be unlike that of any MLS team’s previous experience. Twice, Plano police officers swept through the lobby asking for key cards to try to clear out the dozens of fans who sat around the hotel entrance hoping for a look at Messi. Many of the fans in attendance said they learned of the team’s hotel simply via word of mouth. Adult fans and children milled about. One father in an Argentina jersey fed an infant a bottle. Another young boy stood next to him in an Albiceleste kit, as well. As the night wore on, the crowd grew. Some fans sat outside the side entrances in 100-degree heat.

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Johnny Esparza, 41, drove three and a half hours from Austin with his nephew, Sebastian, 14, who used to play for the Texas-based Barcelona academy. They just wanted a chance to see Messi. Esparza said he learned of the hotel location from a Dallas-based “super fan” who is well-connected to the soccer community. They sat for hours in the lobby and eventually booked a room at a nearby hotel to try again to see Messi on Sunday when the team departed for Toyota Stadium.


“Just the experience that he’s here,” Esparza said. “We don’t know if he’ll come out and interact with people or not.”

Team security officials have been coordinating with every team Miami will visit this season. Inter Miami started coordinating with FC Dallas when the sheer possibility of a game became apparent in July as the tournament was underway. One official departed on Thursday morning for Dallas to do advance scouting of potential hotels ahead of selecting a venue on Friday morning that the team and league felt was best suited to keeping Inter Miami’s players safe.

At the team hotel on Saturday, Inter Miami was essentially in a bubble, unaware of all of the action in the lobby — unless they chose to venture through it. Team activities remained on upper floors, and security was posted on every floor where players were staying. A few Miami players did venture out of the hotel and were stopped in the lobby for pictures and autographs, including DeAndre Yedlin and Robert Taylor. At one point Taylor, who not long ago was a semi-anonymous MLS player, was mobbed by 15 fans in a coffee shop in the lobby and patiently took pictures with all of them.

Yedlin, who previously played overseas with Sunderland, Newcastle and Galatasaray, said there “wasn’t much that we couldn’t do that we did before,” on the trip, and that overall the people in the lobby to try to catch a glimpse of Messi were a good thing for the league.

“There’s obviously a lot more excitement, more security,” Yedlin said on Sunday night. “People are really engaged now. Which is great. It’s great for our team, it’s great for the league. It’s great just that there are a lot of eyes on MLS now. It’s all positive. … Being over in Europe it’s quite similar. It’s not oftentimes you can leave the hotel when you’re playing over in Europe, and if you do usually you’re with some sort of security, so it’s quite similar here.”

Some aspects of security are easier now than they were for high-profile players in the past.

MLS teams used to fly commercially, meaning players like Beckham, Thierry Henry and Kaká have gone through the airports and into the airplane alongside other passengers in past seasons. For years, the league avoided using charter flights and limited the number of charter flights teams could use in the interest of “fairness” to prevent owners willing to spend more from gaining an advantage over those who were not. Autograph seekers would wait for players near the baggage claim of airports.


The league started using charter flights out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic and never reverted back to commercial travel. That made big portions of Messi’s travel to Dallas far easier to handle from a security perspective — the team got on a charter flight in Fort Lauderdale, landed in Dallas and had a police escort to the hotel.

After the game, it was a similar trip from the stadium back to the airport.

Inside the Messi roadshow: How Inter Miami prepared for its first away game of a new era (2)

Messi and his teammates took the long way around (Logan Riely/Getty Images)

At around 5:45 p.m. on Sunday night, with temperatures hovering around 105 degrees, a dozen security officers in red shirts and black shorts sprinted toward midfield. A woman in a red shirt holding a walkie-talkie was the target making a break for the center of the pitch.

It was a training exercise for what might come once Messi arrived.

As the guards went through their sprints to catch the “pitch invader,” another 100 personnel lined the field, most of them standing in the sun on the blazing Frisco evening. Inter Miami would not arrive for another 90 minutes.

Typically, visiting teams at FC Dallas arrive on the south end of the stadium and walk into the facilities from a gate just outside. Even in the soaring temperatures, dozens of fans waited outside that gate waiting for the bus and hoping for a chance to see Messi. But security had scouted out a better option.

Inter Miami instead arrived at the northeast corner of the stadium, where a loading dock offered a more secure access point. The team came out through a tunnel there at 7:10 p.m. and walked along the perimeter of the field to get to their locker room. Outside the stadium, fans waited to enter.

The plan was to open the gates at 7 p.m., but MLS asked FC Dallas to keep the gates closed until Messi and Miami were in the locker rooms. At 7:15 p.m., fans started streaming into their seats. A statement was put out on the Toyota Stadium Twitter account: “We apologize for the delay guests are experiencing entering Toyota Stadium. Per MLS’ request, we were required to delay opening Toyota Stadium gates until all visiting players had arrived.”


In the end, it was a minor inconvenience that set up a thrilling night. FC Dallas and Miami combined for eight goals. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but it came with plenty of drama.

And Messi ultimately delivered the most memorable moment —an inch-perfect free kick that completed a two-goal comeback and kept Miami alive in the Leagues Cup. Inter Miami will return home for now, but planning is likely already underway for the next potential trip in the semifinals.

After Sunday night, and really, all of Messi’s first four games,it would be silly not to plan on Miami being there.

(Top photo: Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Inside the Messi roadshow: How Inter Miami prepared for its first away game of a new era (2024)
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