Leo Messi for Inter Miami in the MLS

If you have a pulse and are even the most casual soccer fan in this country, you know by now that Leo Messi plys his trade for Inter Miami. This is a huge deal because although he is not at his peak, he came to the league as the world player of the year after winning the World Cup – definitely the peak of his achievements on the world stage. Not to mention that he has arguably been the best player of the last 12 years or so (in competition with Cristiano Ronaldo), and is in the argument for the best player of all time. It is unprecedented for a player at this level to come to the MLS. Even David Beckham’s arrival does not compare in this regard.

Messi could have easily spent another year or two in Europe. He also had more lucrative offers from the Saudi Arabian league, but he chose to come to Miami. Reportedly a combination of the lifestyle, family preference (his wife strongly preferred Miami for many reasons), and some of the business incentives pushed this deal over the line. 

Aside from the immediate profitability perspective, the MLS hopes that this move will boost the league’s profile. It’s currently viewed as a bit of a retirement league for top players, and I’m sure the goal of MLS is to try to become competitive with the top leagues in the world.

So what does this mean for US soccer? Can the MLS become a top league? Will our national team win a World Cup in my lifetime? And how does Messi’s presence play into it all? Will the US become a “soccer country”?

What is “US Soccer”?

To start, we’ll need to define what US soccer is.

For anyone passionate about soccer in the US, you know that we still don’t get much respect around the world. Those involved in the game tend to have a chip on their shoulder about this lack of respect, especially players. 

As a player I experienced this firsthand during a stint with a Bundesliga reserve team (U23) in Germany. The coach was introducing me at the start of my first session, and even though I didn’t speak German, I knew when he mentioned I was from (the US). A few players snickered in the locker room and a couple others rolled their eyes. I could tell I had an uphill battle (side note: I was able to earn their respect for a few weeks but not a long-term contract, unfortunately). 

Other US players who have played abroad have experienced this too. The perception has changed dramatically over the past few years, after some US players have seen success. But it has taken a long time. And it still exists.

When Chelsea was struggling or would lose an important game, Pulisic got a disproportionate amount of blame. It’s easy to blame the American – how can he care as much?

When you think about US soccer, you think of an underdog team, in a country that cares more about at least 3-4 other sports, with players coming from a largely middle to upper class background. 

The culture of the game here, while developing, is not the same as in other countries. It’s rare to see kids playing pick up games or just kicking a ball against a wall in the street. The competition to make a professional team, and the fandom of these teams, is not as rabid as it is almost anywhere else in the world. 

I believe a change in our soccer culture will be necessary for us to compete at the top of the game. We just don’t have the pressure or perceived glory to produce the diamonds (world class players) that other countries do. 

Will Messi’s stint have a deep impact on our soccer culture? Can his impact propel us to become a soccer country?

Driving up Current Interest

Obviously Messi’s presence has driven up current interest in the game quite a bit. Recently the New England Revolution vs. Inter Miami game sold out Gillette Stadium, with ticket prices surpassing those for the NFL playoffs for the Patriots. This has often been the case in other cities too. That is a huge deal. 

This increased attendance and national attention will expose more people to the game. It will also give young players the chance to see Messi play in person, and experience the impact a player can have on a crowd and atmosphere in a stadium. This should inspire some of these youngsters to think bigger. 

It will also attract more sponsors, money, and investment in the game. Everyone wants to get in on a hot business opportunity. 

But this will not last forever. Messi will leave or retire one day, and this level of hype will wear off. The difference will be if the league and national team can use this momentum to boost their programs. If they can use the additional investment and attention to make sustainable changes. 

Can we attract more high profile players closer to their peak? Can we put together teams that can win the CONCACAF Champions League? Can the league develop world class players?

Perfect Timing – World Cup 2026

Messi’s timing couldn’t be better. With the Copa America set for this summer, the inaugural Club World Cup taking place in the US in 2025, and the crown jewel, the World Cup, on US soil in 2026, the stars have aligned perfectly to maximize Messi’s impact. 

Best case scenario, his presence continues to drive up interest until the World Cup, at which point soccer reaches a tipping point to become a major sport in the country alongside basketball, football, and baseball. He can then pass the baton to whomever the MLS is able to attract next. 

US soccer has never had better timing for a major superstar to play in the league. Hopefully the powers that be can take full advantage of it. What will that entail? At least the ability to attract major players closer to their peak, more sponsors and better TV deals, investment in youth development, and developing more players with the potential to become world class (like Alfonso Davies, although he is Canadian).

All of these will bring a higher profile to the league and attract even more domestic interest (attendance, TV viewership, and money).

MLS Legitimacy? 

On the one hand, Messi’s agreement to play in the MLS gives the league a level of legitimacy. Even if he did come here at least partially for the lifestyle and business side of things. On the other hand, his absolute dominance so far outlines the gap between the MLS and the top European leagues. 

As of the writing of this article, Messi has 10 goals and 9 assists in 9 league games in 2024. In his most recent season in the French league, his numbers were 16 goals and assists apiece in 32 games. On average, his goal contribution output is about double what it was in the French league.

Even on the dominant team in France, PSG, Messi was still not putting up the numbers he is in MLS. And if you watch his games with Miami, he looks like he’s from another planet compared to most of the league. 

You may be thinking “well, he’s the reigning world player of the year, what do you expect?” And to some degree, you’d be right. He did have a great World Cup performance just last summer. But he had a great Argentina team around him, and they played in a way to maximize his ability without giving him too much defensive burden. 

He is still 36 years old and making it look too easy here, with a Miami team that was a below average MLS team before his arrival. His impact on the field has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.

It goes to show that yes, the MLS is legit enough to get him here, but the level of play still lags quite a bit behind the top European leagues. 

Other Comparable Players – What Was Their Impact?

Going back to the 70s, the US has attracted quite a few global superstars to its top league. The allure of the US has seen many stars wind down their career here, usually to pick up a final payday and enjoy the lifestyle and lower pressure soccer atmosphere this country has to offer. 


Pelé is the first star who comes to mind. He came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos of the defunct NASL, which created a huge bump in attention for the sport in America. It also led to other global stars, like Cruyff, Best, Beckenbauer, Eusebio, and Muller, among others, to play in the US. 

What was the long-term effect? It’s hard to quantify exactly, but his presence cannot be underestimated for the development of soccer in the US. When he came, stadiums sold out, other famous international players made their final stop here, and the league was a hot commodity in the 70s (unfortunately it was mismanaged and folded in the 80s, but that’s a whole other story).

Many of the players from the 1990 US team, the first to qualify for a World Cup in 40 years, grew up around the time these stars were finishing their careers stateside. And this group from the 1990 team did well enough to advance in the 1994 World Cup hosted on US soil, with the MLS taking off in 1996. The US has qualified for every World Cup since, except the 2016 edition. That’s quite a bit of momentum.

While it’s difficult to quantitatively judge the impact of Pelé’s tenure in the NASL, you could argue it was the first stepping stone to build the interest in the sport among youth soccer players at the time, many of whom would start the ascent of our national team program. These players laid the foundation for the next couple generations of players, which has continued to build and build to what we see today.

Could Messi have a similar impact? Only time will tell. The game is much more developed here now than it was in the 70’s, when it was basically a novelty sport, so the relative impact is sure to be less. 

You could see the same principles at work, however. More youth players will be exposed to Messi in person, which should inspire this generation, exposing them to a player of the highest level. He will sell out stadiums, bringing new people to the game and improving the overall profile.

If he can attract more players of a higher caliber to join the league and improve its overall quality of play, then yes, he can have a similar long term impact as Pelé did on the playing side of things.

David Beckham

David Beckham is a similar comparison in terms of a modern player joining due to the business potential of the deal. Beckham had a similarly high profile when he made the move to LA, and was attracted by the lifestyle and long-term monetary incentives. One of which involved a cut-rate price for an MLS franchise… which ended up being Inter Miami. 

From a business perspective, Messi has a unique arrangement. He is actually getting an unprecedented revenue sharing deal from the MLS, Adidas, and Apple (more details here). If the Messi “brand” sticks around the MLS into the future, then it will definitely help attract high level players after his playing career.

Messi definitely has some historical reference points from both a playing and business standpoint. If all goes well, his impact could ripple over the MLS and consequently US soccer for the next couple generations of players, or more. 

The Verdict

For now, Messi’s presence has definitely brought a short term boost financially and given the league a different level of legitimacy. After all, no other MLS player has been a reigning world player of the year! And his revenue sharing deal is sure to add a longer term interest from Messi as well.

In the US, the problem has never been general interest in the sport – it is still the most played youth sport in the country. And millions watch the Premier League and Champions league. But can Messi have such an impact as to bring soccer on par with other sports in the country? Can the MLS become a world-class league?

More importantly, will it change the culture of the game here? Will more kids start playing pickup games? Will they start practicing vital technical skills on their own? Can this impact raise the bar of competition enough to produce diamonds (aka genuine world class players)? 

I think Messi’s presence will be a good boost, with the potential to take the game over the hump, given the timing of everything else in the next few years. This impact will only take US soccer to the next level (MLS as a competitive league in the world and our national team competing for the World Cup) if these changes take place on a deeper, cultural level. I think Messi has that potential.

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