Inter Miami's goal of being MLS' destination club is clear. How they get there, though, is still uncertain

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As goalkeeper Drake Callender stepped up to face the media, the postgame vibe inside the Inter Miami CF locker room was already electric. The heavy bass from the sound system thundered off the walls, and the Miami players were ready to bask in their 2-0 win over CF Montreal, the first time in four attempts that the Herons had won their season opener.

That Callender was among the first players to speak was fitting: he'd just delivered a man-of-the-match performance with six saves. Up next was Shanyder Borgelin, a local kid from nearby Margate who scored the clincher on his MLS debut.

That two young players made such key contributions was something that manager Phil Neville and sporting director Chris Henderson could take pride in. This is a team that is gradually putting the building blocks in place to become a consistent force in MLS. As those pieces have been put together, they've bought into Neville's approach, which is needed to make a successful whole.

"I think we're all pretty bonded. I think everyone is humble," Callender said that night. "Everyone understands that we're here to work, we're here to win. So whether you're someone who's played 10 years in the league or you're a rookie, everyone understands that."

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But the victory, and those who keyed it, also revealed the team's lack of star power. Gonzalo Higuain is retired, although he still comes by to visit on occasion. The same is true for former midfielder and World Cup-winner Blaise Matuidi. As for the well-known pursuit of Lionel Messi, that still has an air of "show me, don't tell me."

In many respects, this version of Inter Miami, and the path it has taken, has some similarities to that of New York City FC. NYCFC started out being all about stars -- Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa. The only problem is that it didn't produce a winning team in that first year, despite Villa's goals.

NYCFC eventually morphed into a team that was astute in its acquisition of South American attackers like Maxi Moralez and Valentin Castellanos, as well as solid defenders like Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot. Lo and behold, it resulted in an MLS Cup win in 2021.

But Miami now finds itself at an inflection point. Exactly what is Inter Miami's identity?

Is it a team of stars befitting the Magic City and one of the most recognizable former players on the planet in co-owner David Beckham? Or is it the kind of blue-collar team that often finds success in the grind of MLS? Or is it a case of laying that workmanlike foundation to better take advantage of the arrival of Messi, or some other high-profile player, and the opening of a new stadium in 2025?

Now in its fourth year of existence, Miami is providing us the best indication yet of what, exactly, MLS' most hyped club is going to be.

Style was promised when the Herons first started out in 2020, but there was little substance. There simply wasn't enough support in place, both on the field and off, to make the bigger signings like Rodolfo Pizarro work. It was a group of individuals rather than a team.

The first step was to change the culture. Granted, squishy terms like "identity" and "culture" are hard to define. There's often a sense of "I know it when I see it" about them, and they mean different things to different people. But for Neville and Henderson, while the team culture Venn diagram doesn't overlap completely, it comes pretty close.

"We created a family-type culture in here, where people loved and enjoyed coming to work," Neville told ESPN in his office at Miami's training ground. "Every single day they have breakfast together, lunch together. When we travel together, they go everywhere together. They are almost like a brotherhood. And they fought for each other on the pitch. That was a big thing.

"You have to have the right people in the building. When I say 'right people,' it's not necessarily the brainiest guys in the class or the most talented. You've gotta have the right characters. Character is more, it adds to a culture."

That goes for the front office as well. Henderson speaks of there being little in the way of processes in place when he first took over in 2021, be it for sports science or recruitment, though that's since changed.

"Instead of building a team, it's about building a club, and that takes everyone," Henderson said. "That's collaboration from whether it's first-team staff or all the way through the club. Everyone's taking a part in building this startup."

Like any startup, though, there comes a point where the promise of a clever idea has to morph into something substantial, otherwise the project never really gets off the ground. That hasn't quite happened just yet, although the opening of their permanent stadium in two years' time will help, and it's not entirely clear if or when Miami will get there. After all, their dalliance with Messi is taking up plenty of oxygen.

Reporting from ESPN's Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens indicates that, for now, Messi is prioritizing staying at a top level in Europe. Paris Saint-Germain are keen to hang onto Messi, and have engaged in negotiations, with Barcelona lurking in the background, appealing to Messi's emotions to return to the club where he first made a name for himself.

Miami, to its credit, has obviously positioned itself in the race, although it seems as though Messi will come to them on his timing rather than theirs. That leaves Miami in a state of limbo, waiting for a messiah who may never arrive.

When Messi's name is brought up to Neville and Henderson, there's an acknowledgement that if he does join, it will change everything. And even if he doesn't, there is confidence that the lure of Miami and its new stadium will be enough of a draw that some other player will take the plunge.

"If we can get a top star player who fits our vision and the player profiles of what we're looking for, if those all fit together, then great," said Henderson. "Let's get that player, and then the benefits that come with it; increasing ticket sales and the notoriety around the team, that's all a positive and a plus. But the first thing is they just have to fit kind of the way we want to play and the characters we want to bring into the club."

It would certainly fit with Miami and the public pronouncements of co-owner Jorge Mas. (Despite repeated requests, Mas wasn't made available for an interview.) Neville feels it matches the vibe of the city.

"[The fans] want to see a star," Neville said. "It's the stardust-type area."

Clearly, if everything breaks Miami's way, the organization will have to bend to Messi rather than the other way around. Until then, though, Neville and Henderson are left to put on their hard hats and build, even amid the sanctions from violating the league's roster rules by having too many Designated Players in 2020. The impact to the team's salary budget is still being felt, although that will end after this season.

What's been constructed has some solidity to it. Callender looks to be one of the league's standout keepers. Serhiy Kryvtsov appears to be an astute pickup in the back. There have been tests, including a current three-game losing streak, and the long-term foot injury to midfield linchpin Gregore. Those are by no means the first. The biggest stress test of all came last season when Neville benched Higuain, and delivered the kind of blunt message that players usually only appreciate after the fact.

"[Higuain] needed to be fitter," Neville said. "He needed to be committed to the journey. But more importantly, the dressing room needed him to commit to the journey because the dressing room was starting to create their own identity, their own values."

The message had the desired effect. Higuain was the team's best player down the stretch, scoring 14 goals over 16 games and spearheading a drive to the playoffs that seemed unthinkable at the start of the campaign.

For that reason, there is belief that the club is on an upward trajectory. There is confidence in Neville, too, after plenty of initial skepticism that he was only brought on board because of his relationship with former Manchester United and England teammate Beckham.

Yet that belief, in terms of the season ahead, contains plenty of "ifs." If Pizarro can live up to his billing as major offensive contributor after an ineffective season with Liga MX side Monterrey. If Bryce Duke can take the next step in his career. If Josef Martinez can recapture some of his MVP form. If the Herons' backline can hold up. So far -- and yes, it's still early -- only that last question has come close to being answered in the affirmative.

The goals are clear for Inter Miami, though their path still feels uncertain.