Don’t pinch me. If this isn’t a dream, I don’t want to wake up.
My favorite team — and yours, presumably, if you’re reading this — are on the brink of making the most significant signing in U.S. soccer history. Lionel Messi to Miami is exponentially more important than Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy or even the great Pele to New York Cosmos for a few reasons:
1. Quality and ambition
Pele is, justifiably, still considered by many fans to be the greatest player of all time, won three World Cups with Brazil (1958, 1962 and 1970) but hadn’t played soccer competitively for eight months when he was signed by the Cosmos in 1975 (at age 34). He excelled in the old NASL and, as an effervescent ambassador of the beautiful game, helped catapult soccer into the American sports spotlight. Beckham was a very good player, but his sporting resume doesn’t compare to Pele’s or Messi’s. As a stylish, handsome pop culture icon, though, his signing with the Galaxy helped secure MLS as a viable league. His signing introduced the designated player, which has helped America’s top tier become far more competitive recruiting quality players and its teams playing better football. But Messi is coming off earning his second Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player, and remains among the premier attacking players in the world. He wants to help Argentina defend its Copa America title when the competition is played next year in the U.S. and has an outside chance of playing for another World Cup title with La Albiceleste in 2026 when North America hosts the world’s most prestigious athletic competition. Messi’s move to Miami is good for his family, but it’s also good for his preparation for Copa America and the World Cup.
2. Global audience
One of the most immediate impacts of the Messi-to-Miami news has been the explosion of interest in Inter Miami CF worldwide. Although ambitious, the Herons aren’t among Major League Soccer’s marquee teams. But, within hours of Messi announcing his decision, his legions of followers began swelling Inter Miami’s profile. Messi has more Instagram followers (almost 470 million) than everyone on the platform EXCEPT his former La Liga rival, Cristiano Ronaldo (almost 530 million). That’s not just among soccer players or sports stars, that’s everyone! Inter Miami’s team account on Instagram had about a million followers before the Messi news. Today, it has more than 7 million followers, more than any team in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey Association OR Major League Soccer. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison because the media landscape has changed so dramatically even since 2008, when Beckham came to LA but, despite that advantage, it is undeniably true that Messi will shine a spotlight on MLS like nothing we’ve ever experienced.
Messi’s arrival in MLS is perfectly timed to coincide with the third great surge of soccer popularity in the United States. The first started quietly with a surprising North American interest in the 1966 World Cup, won by England. Professional leagues started in 1968 and, by the mid-1970s, the North American Soccer League had become a sensation, attracting some of the world’s greatest players and inspiring a youth soccer boom. The NASL — “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer” — was a hit through the mid to late ‘70s but perhaps rose too far, too fast. Overspending, fickle owners and incompetent management forced the league out of business by 1984, but soccer had strengthened its presence in the American sports landscape. And, some iconic professional teams were born in this era, several of which survive, if in name only, to this day: the Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Tampa Bay Rowdies… Others, like the New York Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, still are fondly remembered.
In 1994, the United States hosted its first (and only) World Cup. Creation of a new, top-tier FIFA-sanctioned professional league was part of the arrangement, the genesis of Major League Soccer. After some early struggles, the advent of soccer-specific stadiums, adoption of international rules, and greater spending* on players’ salaries revived the sport and set it on a trajectory to sign the world’s greatest player. (*Thanks largely to Beckham’s deal with MLS and the L.A. Galaxy, which introduced the DP era).
Now, over the next three years, the U.S. is preparing to host not JUST a World Cup — the most watched sporting event in the world — but also theCopa América, the world’s second most prestigious continental tournament behind the Euros. Argentina is the reigning champion of both competitions, and Messi will be eager to defend both titles. That’s good news for Herons’ fans because, unlike other international stars who spent the twilight of their careers in MLS, he has more than money and more than the MLS Cup on the line.
Messi’s physical skills may diminish, but his soccer knowledge, his experience and his competitiveness will not. And that bodes well for La Rosanegra, for MLS and for the game of soccer in the U.S.