Inter Miami's Bumpy Road to the MLS Ends With Kickoff Next Weekend

Inter Miami supporters' club the Siege.
Inter Miami supporters' club the Siege. Photo by Ted Brooks
click to enlarge Inter Miami supporters' club the Siege. - PHOTO BY TED BROOKS
Inter Miami supporters' club the Siege.
Photo by Ted Brooks
Miami's road to Major League Soccer has been as long as has it been winding. The city was awarded an expansion team in 2014, a full six years before its inaugural season — and it needed every last minute. The nascent franchise has suffered stadium setbacks and a sponsorship scandal. Even the club's name, Inter Miami CF, hasn't been spared controversy as a trademark battle with Italian Serie A continues to develop. Though management has locked down partnerships with household-name brands such as Heineken and Captain Morgan, Inter Miami is the only MLS team playing this year without a major sponsor, and that seems unlikely to change in the few days before its season opener against Los Angeles FC next Sunday, March 1.

Still, despite it all, the team is here and the fans are ready. Although Inter Miami co-owner and former soccer superstar David Beckham failed to keep his promise of snagging an elite player from a European league, the squad has made some significant signings in the past few months. It's never easy to build support for a team that doesn't exist, but Inter Miami seems to have managed as well any other expansion by building hype and spreading pink-and-black shirts and bumper stickers across Miami-Dade. So with the new season only days away, now seems like an appropriate time to look back on how Inter Miami got to where it is today.   

The story of Inter Miami has been, in large part, a story of politicking by Beckham and company to secure a deal for a stadium in Miami. The team will play its first two seasons at the newly renovated Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale while details are ironed out for a lease on property just east of Miami International Airport. The dream stadium's name is Miami Freedom Park, and the billion-dollar development project, which also includes a million square feet for office and retail space, has moved steadily closer to reality. A 2018 referendum on whether to offer exclusive negotiating rights for the development site to Miami Freedom Park was approved by more than 60 percent of local voters. The last hurdle for Beckham is to score the support of at least four City of Miami commissioners.

Inter Miami scored big in the 2020 MLS super draft when it selected two of the most sought-after collegiate talents: Robbie Robinson and Dylan Nealis. The two signings cemented Inter Miami's status as a real club and filled gaps in a squad still lacking significant depth. But Robinson and Nealis were just the beginning. In the weeks since the January draft, the club has secured the services of MLS veteran Wil Trapp, Argentine center back Nicolás Figal, and Liga MX star Rodolfo Pizarro. Beckham and management have long hinted at signing a player so big that even the least engaged of soccer fans would recognize it, but that signing has failed to materialize. Still, with kickoff just a week away, Inter Miami will be able to field a solid side to begin its MLS campaign.
As for that nonexistent sponsorship deal, it's apparently not for lack of trying. Beckham was recently linked to high-level negotiations with the Persian Gulf state of Qatar over jersey advertisement and stadium-naming rights. The news, first reported by sports journalism website the Athletic, caught Inter Miami fans by surprise and left many with a bad taste in their mouths. Qatar has been at the center of much controversy in the world of international soccer over the past few years: It has faced troubling allegations of human rights abuses and corruption at home. The club has been tight-lipped about its dealings with Qatar, but just this past week, a new report surfaced in the U.K. tabloid the Sun that Inter Miami had signed a $230 million sponsorship deal with the oil-rich nation. Inter Miami has neither denied nor confirmed the reports.
Then there's the big trademark battle that could force Inter Miami to change its name. That's right: The team could be forced to rebrand thanks to a trademark application submitted in 2014 by the Italian team Inter Milan (full name: Football Club Internazionale Milano S.p.A.). Inter Milan aimed to make "Inter" an exclusive brand in the United States by effectively blocking other teams from using the name. Four years later, Beckham announced the name for his fledgling club: Inter Miami. Cue the fireworks. Major League Soccer has joined Inter Miami's cause in the legal battle over the "Inter" brand, but for the time being, it appears to be an uphill battle. Things remain up in the air, but there's a real possibility Inter Miami could be forced to change its name, jerseys, and oh-so-wonderful logo in the near future. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.