Dec 30, 2020

Messi To MLS? It's A Real Possibility

On a scale that ranges between "no chance whatsoever" and "nailed-on certainty", the likelihood of Lionel Messi spending some time in Major League Soccer before his spectacular career is done now sits right around center, smack in the middle of the "maybe" range.

Given that the radar was set far more pessimistically just a few days ago, American soccer fans will be happy enough with that.

Those who follow and care about MLS long ago stopped paying much attention to the breathless European tabloids, whose speculations of Stateside-bound megastars, if they all came to fruition, would see the league’s teams boast rosters so pristine they’d read like a who’s who of the world’s best.

Yet the latest brief but rather stunning news out of Spain came directly from a television interview involving and instigated by Messi himself, where, among other things, he mentioned that the prospect of playing in the United States held serious appeal.

"I would like to play in the United States one day," Messi told television channel La Sexta. "It has always been one of my dreams. I don’t know if it will happen."

Quite what to make of it all is no simple task. It could have been a throwaway comment or it could be everything. It could have been a ploy amid a time of flux. Messi’s relationship with Barcelona, where he has spent his entire career and – until recently – was never expected to leave, remains tangled and fraught.

With his contract due to expire at the end of the Spanish season, the English Premier League’s Manchester City and France’s Paris St. Germain will be the biggest and richest chasers, though Messi could resolve his differences and decide to stay put. As for MLS, Inter Miami is the most mentioned destination, with David Beckham’s ownership role seen as a telling factor.

Which brings us to another discussion entirely and perhaps the more significant one.

Messi would be the most accomplished player ever to play in MLS but it is impossible to think that his overall impact would be the greatest American soccer has seen. Because … Beckham.

Now 45, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid superstar and his Spice Girl wife Victoria breezed into North America in the summer of 2007 on the back of a celebrity juggernaut that far transcended the sport.

"Beckham had a different profile and that’s why the response was off the charts," Glenn Lehrman, who was Beckham’s U.S. PR rep during his time with the Los Angeles Galaxy, told me via telephone on Monday. "It was like the Beatles coming to America and it was everywhere we went, with paparazzi and masses of media.

"I don’t think there is another athlete in any sport, who could move here and have that kind of impact. Beckham was the perfect mix of a cultural figure and a player with world class credentials."

Beckham’s arrival spawned a monumental wave of media attention, even when he couldn’t play much the first season due to a series of injuries.

"We had no idea of the scope of what we were getting into until we started accepting media credential requests for his introduction event," Justin Pearson, then the Galaxy’s communications manager, told me via telephone. "We had 700 media members, from every outlet you could possibly think of, come out for what was essentially him holding up a jersey, saying a few words and having photos taken."

If Messi came to America it would generate a big splash. Forget that, it would be huge. But things are also different now. MLS just completed its 25th campaign and soccer in this country has grown up greatly. A savior, like how Beckham was touted, is no longer needed.

When Beckham announced he would be coming, the 13th team had just joined MLS. Next season will begin with 27, a number that will rise to 30 by 2023. Soccer specific stadiums have gone from being a rarity to the norm.

Messi is majestic on the field but wouldn’t have, and wouldn’t have much interest in, the same kind of celebrity buzz and the game itself doesn’t have the same scope for growth as when Beckham crossed the Atlantic.

For now, Messi has his own issues to deal with. He is furious at the way Barcelona has handled its business, but his roots there run deep.

He is genuinely unsettled, appears to be seriously considering a departure and has one final chance to do something about it. If he lets his existing deal expire, he will enter the summer as the most tantalizing free agent soccer has ever seen.

There are many who would bestow upon him the tag of the best player in soccer history. Such things are usually best determined once some time has elapsed since retirement, but Messi has everything you’d want from a candidate for induction into the sport’s most elite individual club, currently occupied by Brazilian icon Pele and the recently passed genius, Messi’s fellow Argentinean, Diego Maradona.

It would be extraordinary to see him in MLS, which isn’t on the same level as the best European leagues but is unrecognizable in terms of quality and sophistication from when Beckham was rubbing shoulders with teammates earning just $12,000 per season.

If Messi does come, it is not a given that it would be the Lionel and Becks Show in Miami. How about a couple of years terrorizing the EPL with Manchester City, then two more at City’s MLS offshoot, New York City FC? Careful now, that started to sound a bit like speculation.

MLS fans no longer pine and hunger for the biggest names quite so much, but Messi, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, is one of the two mightiest fish of all. For an MLS club, like any team worldwide, landing him would be a dream … and it is suddenly one that feels far more likely to come true.