While Lionel Messi was busy ending his career odyssey in the most dramatic fashion, David Beckham watched from the stands, hoping his Inter Miami side could land their own unicorn.
The Major League Soccer franchise is would have ‘confident’ of signing Messi after the 2022-23 European season, and ‘close’ to a deal making him the highest-paid player in MLS history.
Messi to Miami would be earth-shattering: the biggest move in American football since Beckham swung to LA Galaxy to revolutionize the domestic game 15 years ago. It would elevate InterMiami from an average expansion franchise with a famous owner to the biggest draw in the league.
The team has been open to the court for years and Messi calls playing in MLS a ‘dream’. Beckham has always Miami promised “a star” and there is none bigger.
“Obviously there’s a lot of excitement from the fans. When you see Messi and Inter Miami, how can you not be excited?” says Franco Panizo, founder of the Miami Total Football podcast.
“He’s an icon, an idol and one of the greats of the game. You could say he’s the greatest of all time. What would that mean for the Latino community in the south of Florida? How would they accept the Messi extravaganza? How would it elevate the game in the region?
The potential impact for the club and the global profile of MLS is monumental – the biggest name in the game, fresh off a World Cup win where he was crowned Player of the Tournament – but that’s not to say. automatically the best shot for Inter Miami on the field.
Messi turns 36 next summer and joins MLS mid-season, having played every minute of Argentina’s grueling World Cup triumph and a full campaign with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, who could now redouble their efforts to retain the player and bask more. in that World Cup glory.
Much like the United States Men’s National Team, MLS has transitioned to a youth-focused athletic league, getting rid of the “retirement home” sneers. Imports of older big names have mixed records – for every Beckham and Zlatan there has been a flop like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard – and Inter themselves are in danger of becoming a mere sideshow.
Still, it’s an opportunity the club must seize, according to former USMNT striker Alan Gordon. He played 15 seasons in MLS with and against franchise signings like Beckham and Thierry Henry. He says Messi’s impact would be the league’s next big catalyst.
“Messi is the biggest name in sport and one of the best to ever set foot on a football pitch. He’s going to fill the stands,” he told the Guardian.
“Before Beckham arrived, we flew in ‘Group C’ on Southwest Airlines with LA Galaxy. We were walking through the airport and either no one knew us or no one cared. When he arrived, we went from playing in front of 10,000 to 60-70,000 people in [American] soccer stadiums. That’s how it’s gonna be. And guess what? I would be the first to get a ticket and take my kids to see Messi.
The new face of MLS
The national team’s positive performance at the World Cup could attract new fans to MLS in 2023, with or without an attraction like Messi. Still, domestic game fans won’t see new Gen Z stars like US Captain Tyler Adams. He and Brenden Aaronson play for Leeds. Christian Pulisic is at Chelsea, Yunus Musah is at Valencia, Weston McKennie plays for Juventus.
Rather than crown Leo Messi their highest-paid player of all time, could MLS clubs do more to attract homegrown talent – like Pulisic, who remains a peripheral figure at Chelsea – ahead of the 2026 World Cup in North America? North ?
“For the league, it would be 100 per cent in its interest to have these players,” says Alan Gordon, who won the MLS Cup with LA Galaxy in 2005 and 2014. “But as a country, you want these guys are developing and playing in the top leagues and American players are gaining notoriety, our children are playing on world-class teams in the Champions League.
The USMNT had the second-youngest team in the World Cup, with an average of 25.2 years old. Fifteen were 24 or younger. Eighteen had ties to MLS as former, current or academy players.
MLS, at 25.9, now has a younger average age than Liga MX (27.5), Premier League (27.1) and La Liga (27.7), per transfer market. Compared to Europe’s top five leagues, MLS claims it ranked third in percentage of minutes played and goals scored by players aged 21 and under.
While Messi can transcend such measures, Miami is striving to rejuvenate. From the third oldest (27.9) in 2021, they have fallen to 26.2 in 2022, in line with the MLS average. Beckham is also keen to emulate Manchester United academy he and coach Phil Neville were there and to promote local youth.
“MLS is a youth league. Some of the best young players go through the academies. We are a club that wants to produce its own players.” Neville told the Guardian in 2021.
A total of 151 different homegrown players have played an MLS game in 2022, more than doubling since the 2018 season, while minutes played have increased by 90%. Sixty-two home players have scored goals, the most in league history and up 50% since 2018. Home players also provided 200 assists for the first time.
With the U22 initiative A rule introduced in 2021, MLS teams can sign three young players on league-max contracts with a minimum salary cap, until they turn 25. This has helped teams sign talented youngsters for competitive offers.
The mechanics are in place and the league is younger and more homegrown than ever. Considering Messi would have played almost a calendar year of football, how much could Miami get from a mid-2023 arrival?
“Realistically? Pieces. If he signs, I imagine he’ll have a break in June, won’t arrive until July and maybe won’t play for a few weeks until fit,” says Panizo, who has covered MLS for more than a decade.
“I’ve seen a lot of big-name stars come in and they often struggle in the first season. There are so many different challenges, with different travel schedules and different weather conditions. One weekend you play at altitude in Colorado and the next in the heat of Houston.
Miami could put together a roster for 2023, hoping Messi will join. Before Sunday’s final, Messi had covered 31km of the 52km he had covered (58%) on the pitch – the most of any player in the tournament. That’s not an argument against signing Messi, but it does mean Miami would need tough midfielders like Rodrigo De Paul or Alexis Mac Allister to take on that workload.
“Miami would need to put the right parts around it with a lot of workers,” says Gordon.
From Beckham to Basel
As Miami chase Messi, there’s a lesson to be learned from MLS history – signing superstars doesn’t often translate to trophies.
Thierry Henry has racked up a legacy of 52 goals and 49 assists in 133 MLS games for the New York Red Bulls. During those five years, the team reached the conference finals once. Gerrard’s LA Galaxy years didn’t extend beyond the conference semifinals. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 53 goals in 56 LA Galaxy regular season games weren’t enough. The team missed the 2018 playoffs and reached the half-conference in 2019.
A splashy signing from European leagues was MLS MVP only twice: Robbie Keane in 2014 and David Villa for NYCFC in 2016. Beckham himself endured tough years in Los Angeles before ending his career with Cups Consecutive MLSs.
“The first three years were terrible,” says Gordon, 41, now a mortgage sales manager in Colorado. “There were so many expectations, but there are 10 other players on the pitch and you had to put together a good overall formation, which was difficult at the time.
“But he had this terrific fairy tale ending. He stayed in the league and committed, even though he saw failures and people were very critical of him. He persevered and ended up having one of the best teams in MLS history with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.
Among the cautionary tales, an exception (of sorts) is Gareth Bale. A somewhat absent player since joining from Real Madrid, Bale’s 128th-minute header for 10-man LAFC tied the scores against Philadelphia in the MLS Cup final. LA won the shootout and a first MLS title.
“I’m not sure I liked the move!” said Gordon. “But it was exciting. Because it was Bale, it meant more, and those moments are key for this league. He’s at world level and it’s the big world titles. Anything Messi does here will be front and center. . »
For Inter Miami, the acquisition of world stars was a founding principle. So far, Gonzalo Higuaín and France World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi have been the best known, but neither come close to Messi’s status.
Panizo adds: “They are looking for a big household name. David Beckham has sold this narrative that he’ll bring the stars to go with Miami’s glitz and sex appeal.
“Even if it’s a disastrous failure on the pitch, it would be a long-term success to have him in the history of the club. A hundred years from now you can see clips of Messi playing in pink and black again.