At MLS All-Star Week, Messi’s Arrival Scores Plenty of Optimism 

Messi will make his debut for Inter Miami CF on Friday in a Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul

July 21, 2023 6:53 am
Lionel Messi waves as he is presented as the newest MLS player.
Without stepping on the pitch, Lionel Messi is the biggest star in MLS.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty

As Major League Soccer landed in Washington, D.C. on Sunday to kick off its All-Star Week festivities, the sport’s (and now league’s) biggest icon was receiving a hero’s welcome 1,000 miles down the east coast. After announcing his intention to play in South Florida last month, Lionel Messi officially signed a multi-year deal with Inter Miami CF, becoming the highest-profile acquisition in MLS history. In front of a sold-out crowd at DRV PNK Stadium, Messi held up his new pink uniform, posed for photos, addressed the rain-soaked fans, and expressed his excitement about joining a league that seems poised to take another big step forward with his arrival. “I can’t wait to start training to compete,” he said. “I feel the same desire I’ve always had to compete, to really want to win and to help [Miami] continue to grow.”

The seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, considered the highest individual award in soccer, spent the majority of his 17-year professional career with Barcelona FC before transferring to Paris St. Germain, where he’s played the last two years. Over his 1,027 games, more than 100 of his 807 goals have come while playing for the Argentinian national team, which won last year’s World Cup thanks in large part to his scoring efforts. Though Messi, 36, might be nearing the end of his career, he’s retained an inestimable and global superstar status, and his still exceptional level of play promises more eyeballs on a 28-year-old league still trying to attract more top-flight players away from European leagues.  

“The best player in the history of the game choosing Major League Soccer is something we couldn’t be more excited about,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told reporters Tuesday in the ballroom of the Hotel Washington. “We have always believed North America is driving a lot of the energy and the potential value of soccer on a global basis. We believe MLS is one of the drivers of all that energy.”

The residual buzz could be felt throughout the nation’s capital, where the MLS All-Star squad participated in a series of practices, community events, and media gatherings ahead of its Wednesday night matchup against English Premier League powerhouse Arsenal at Audi Field. In its bid for more international relevance, the league hopes that Messi’s arrival (and his Friday debut) will punctuate the 10-year broadcast deal it signed with Apple this season as well as turn up the volume around its inaugural Leagues Cup, a CONCACAF-affiliated tournament that pits together MLS teams from the U.S. and Canada along with participants from Mexico’s Liga MX. 

“When I got into this league 10, 11 years ago, you could see things were progressing this way, but to see it coming to fruition, bringing in the best player in the world, has been unbelievable,” said Ryan Hollingshead, a defender for Los Angeles FC, standing on a makeshift practice pitch between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. “There’s not a better guy to do it.”

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“Messi coming here is insane,” added New York Red Bulls defender John Tolkin. “It’s just showing soccer is a global sport. It’s starting to come to America and it’s growing and growing and it’s only going to get better.”

MLS had similar plans for growth when David Beckham first signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. The English superstar (who facilitated Messi’s arrival as a co-owner of Inter Miami) joined the North American league on the cusp of retirement and sustained numerous injuries throughout his tenure in L.A. But his decision to jump abroad became enticing for other players in the twilights of their career. Since then, a number of well-known European stars — Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney, who now coaches D.C. United and led the All-Star squad this week — have subscribed to the MLS push for global relevance and increased competition. In the process, their late-career relocations renewed their celebrity, but Messi’s commitment to Miami feels different, mostly because his production on the pitch has hardly slowed down. 

“The traction that [MLS is] getting across Europe as well now, it’s very different to what it was before,” said Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta, excited by his team’s own big acquisition this week in Declan Rice. “And now the decision that they made to make the league much better by bringing in top talent and the best-ever football player on this planet, obviously, is going to put them in the spotlight. I think it was a very clever move and that’s something really, really good, not only for the league but everyone else connected to it.”

That’s not to say MLS has abandoned developing its own stars. For the last several years, Garber has insisted that becoming a legitimate league means both buying and selling players on the international market, the result of teams investing in their academies and homegrown players. At age 20, Tolkin is a good example, a U.S. Men’s National Team substitute and first-time All-Star for the Red Bulls who joined the team’s academy in 2015. He has plans to play for a Premier League team much like recent Arsenal defectors Matt Turner and Auston Trusty, and the latter has been enjoying his English team’s U.S. tour and reconnecting with his former opponents. “Teams are looking to sell their homegrowns, and now huge names are coming,” Tolkin said. “Hopefully I can one day take my game across the pond. That’s my dream and I think this league can provide that.”

Lionel Messi trains with his Inter Miami CF teammates.
Lionel Messi will attempt to save the season for Inter-Miami CF.
Megan Briggs/Getty

At this point, Garber said he isn’t focusing on any specific broadcast metrics or revenue goals in relation to Messi. The “real success factor,” he said, is in how it impacts the reputation and relevance of MLS in the near and long-term future. “At some point, there will be some players who are thinking about MLS because [they] saw the experience and success of Lionel Messi with Inter Miami,” Garber said. But you can already see the tangible impact in Miami, a city with a bustling Argentine population whose restaurants have added Messi menu items and large walls painted over with Messi murals. Before he announced his intention to play in MLS, Inter Miami’s Instagram account had around one million followers. Now it boasts over 10 million, its photo grid plastered with Messi’s face. Despite Miami’s poor record (they have the fewest points in the league’s overall standings), even MLS players can’t wait for their chance to see what “Messi Mania” has in store when he visits their home stadium.

“It’s going to be massive. We haven’t seen anything like it,” said Walker Zimmerman, a center-back for Nashville FC and member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. “The atmosphere in every stadium that he goes to is going to change and be the best it’s ever been and that’s going to be good for the growth of the league. I’m sure every player has their calendar marked on the game that they’re playing Miami now and that’s really special, too.”

Perhaps in an attempt at more attention, Cristiano Ronaldo shot back at the festive mood on Monday when he was asked about Messi’s decision to join MLS in favor of the Saudi pro league during a media session. “The Saudi league is better than MLS,” he said. “I opened the way to the Saudi league and now all the players are coming here.” Garber remained diplomatic about Ronaldo’s comments, but noted, “We have always been that league that is the challenger league.” Of course, Messi’s decision, according to Hollingshead, might not have been possible when he entered the league a decade ago. “I think it’s huge in showing how deep the league is here, how competitive the league is here, that this isn’t a place where you come and walk all over guys.”

There is plenty of optimism around a star-studded week, but Messi’s journey to the U.S. should provide a pivotal jolt to North American soccer, already preparing to host the 2024 Copa América, the 2025 Club World Cup and the 2026 World Cup. As Messi begins his next chapter — specifically against Liga MX team Cruz Azul — Garber is confident that Major League Soccer will keep rising in prominence, and ultimately become the kind of global power he and MLS owners and fans have been waiting for. “We proved to the world that we can at least compete with the top player in the world, but how can we capture the hearts and minds of fans around the world, of every player, so Declan Rice might say, ‘Maybe I won’t go to Arsenal, maybe I’ll go to St. Louis?’” Garber said. “There’s no real end to what soccer in North America can be and all of us are working really hard to have no barriers to what that opportunity is.”

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