By Tom Sweezy
Lionel Messi's goal celebration against Real Madrid (Photo credit: barcacentre)
Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, David Villa, Jermaine Defoe, Robbie Keane, Kaká, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Cole, Gareth Bale, Carlos Vela, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and the list of global superstars who have graced Major League Soccer goes on and on. But when you look at the league’s history, there will be two stars that you can genuinely say impacted MLS more than any other.
The first takes us back to 2007 when the Los Angeles Galaxy signed midfielder David Beckham from La Liga giants Real Madrid. Through his salary and various other endorsements provided to him through the Galaxy and MLS, it is reported that Beckham’s deal was worth roughly $250 million. Also included in the deal, MLS offered Beckham a future option to buy an MLS expansion club in any city in the United States (outside of New York City) for a set fee of $25 million upon his retirement.
Another major rule change that came about in MLS due to the Beckham signing was the creation of the Designated Player rule. This rule allows MLS clubs to sign and pay three players above the salary cap that the league operates by. The signing of David Beckham brought new rules, standards, coverage, eyes, and most importantly, money to MLS.
Roughly 16 years later, that second impactful signing will arrive at U.S. club soccer. On June 7th, Inter Miami CF announced the signing of 2022 World Cup Champion Lionel Messi. The obvious reason this signing is so impactful to MLS is the status of Messi, one where many consider him to be the greatest player of all time (or at least his generation).
The 35-year-old Argentine legend arrives at South Beach after winning a World Cup, Ligue 1 title, French Super Cup, CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions, and many individual awards since the beginning of 2022. I was able to speak to a former manager within MLS (who wanted to remain anonymous) who let me know how he felt about Messi’s arrival to MLS:
“This is massive for the league. Exposure (increases), credibility (increases), attendance (increases), etc.” Throughout our conversation, he would also let me know that this move is “... similar (to the Beckham signing) but I think it can even be a bigger boost because it’s Messi and he just won the World Cup. The difference in personality may play a part though, so that's something people have to understand is that Messi is not gonna be out in public as Beckham was. And from all accounts, it seems like he chose MLS due to less public pressure.”
This former manager is correct, in my opinion. The amount of increased exposure that this move will bring to MLS is astronomical. Outlets and journalists who have never covered this league, outside of the occasional comment, will now cover how Messi and Inter Miami perform every week.
More coverage and exposure bring more sponsorship opportunities as well as ticket and jersey sales… which all inevitably means more money for the league. Pairing this with the timing of the 2026 World Cup being played mostly in the United States, the landscape of Major League Soccer is about to shift drastically over the coming years. Now how exactly does this change the landscape? That remains to be seen. The overarching theme to remember as a fan of MLS or any club within the league is that it will grow on all fronts. Growth comes with changes, similar to what we saw with the Designated Player rule after the Beckham signing back in 2007.
Maybe we will see more Designated Player spots on MLS rosters? Increased salary cap or even complete removal of the salary cap? Do we get all grass fields removing the seemingly unpopular turf fields? Patience and time will tell what inevitably comes from this move. I was also able to reach out to various current and former professional MLS players about this move, and here is a list of quotes I received:
“Unreal mate… I moved back to the States around the same time as Beckham did and look at how this league has grown since then. So someone of Messi’s nature, if done properly, should help even more!!”
“I think it’s great for the league. I don’t think anyone would be against having arguably the greatest player of all time to play against”
“Incredibly cool that guys are going to get to share the field with the best player in the world. Amazing exposure for the league and gives the TV deal a chance to be successful.”
It seems all positive for the move at this point when looked at by players, coaches, fans, and journalists of the game. But with positives always comes the negatives and the 2023 season sure has been a negative one for Inter Miami CF. Currently, Miami sits in last place in the Eastern Conference with a conference-worst points total of 15 (through 16 games).
Miami is also still alive in the U.S. Open Cup as well as the new look Leagues Cup which begins this summer. With an expanded and newly named CONCACAF Champions Cup starting in 2024, I am sure that CONCACAF, Major League Soccer, Liga MX, Inter Miami, and everyone in between want to see Messi playing in this competition.
In my opinion, this dream will only happen for Miami via the Open Cup or Leagues Cup title. In the last few seasons, we’ve seen how a slow start to a season, and not capitalizing on early season points, has hurt clubs late causing missed playoff berths. I have a feeling, even with Messi, that is going to be the case for 2023 Inter Miami as well.
In deals like this, the future needs to be the focus as looking in the short term can lead to some pessimistic viewpoints. Messi, along with owner Beckham and the widely popular city of Miami, Florida, is going to attract more stars. Whether we are talking about former teammates of Messi, like Sergio Busquets, current international teammates of Messi, like Angel Di Maria, or a plethora of young talents from South and Central America.
Inter Miami will have every opportunity to build a team over the next few seasons that could realistically dominate Major League Soccer and beyond. Beckham, Jorge Mas, Chris Henderson, and Co. now have the face for this new era in Inter Miami history, but now they need their next leader and head coach. Could Messi team up again with his former manager in Tata Martino? We just have to wait and see.