Messi to Miami: Timing is everything

Where does 
Lionel Messi's impending arrival at Inter Miami rank in the history of American player signings?

Messi will be the ninth Ballon d'Or winner to play in the NASL or MLS. (Others played in summer leagues in the early 1960s.)

At its height, the NASL had Franz BeckenbauerJohan CruyffGerd Mueller and George Best all playing in the league at the same time.

The two most impactful players, though, were Pele and David Beckham, whose arrivals coincided with unprecedented growth spurts in the pro game.

When Pele arrived at the Cosmos in 1975, the NASL was just starting to enjoy success in new soccer markets like Seattle and San Jose, which entered the league in 1974, and Tampa Bay and Portland, which were immediate hits when they joined the NASL in 1975.

Pele played for the Cosmos for less than three years, but the year after he left the NASL had grown to 24 teams. A remarkable achievement for a league that had just five teams less than a decade earlier, but fleeting nonetheless. Eight years after Pele's departure, the NASL was defunct.

Beckham arrived at the LA Galaxy in 2007, just six years after MLS almost collapsed, contracting to 10 teams operated by three investors. Soccer's roots were much stronger, though, and the single-entity business model, a direct response to the fly-by-night NASL, anchored MLS.

Beckham's signing from Real Madrid gave MLS respectability just as it was starting to build momentum. It added its 13th team in 2007, Toronto FC, starting a run of six seasons during which it welcomed at least one expansion team each season.

So what does MLS get in Messi?

They get the greatest player of his generation, the winner of a record seven Ballons d'Or, coming off the greatest achievement of his career, leading Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title after the most exciting final in the history of the tournament.

No introduction is needed.

But unlike the days of Pele or Beckham, many MLS teams don't need Messi to fill their stadiums, though they are already getting creative about developing priority ticket packages for Inter Miami dates, and his imminent signing has already set off an explosion of prices on the secondary ticket market.

One place where fan support has been a problem is Inter Miami, last in the league in attendance in 2022 with an average of less than 13,000 fans a game at 18,000-seat DRV PNK Stadium, its temporary home in Fort Lauderdale. 

The Miami Herald reported that Inter Miami will add 2,500-3,000 seats to DRV PNK Stadium ahead of its planned move to its new 25,000-seat Miami Freedom Park in 2025.

Messi will be joining the Eastern Conference's worst team, in the midst of a five-game MLS losing streak and a coaching change. In that way, the Argentine's arrival in MLS will be similar to that of Pele and Beckham, who both joined lousy teams. 

The Cosmos didn't make the the NASL playoffs in Pele's first season. Ditto for the Galaxy with Beckham in 2007 and 2008. (Both players exited as champions, though, Pele in his third season and Beckham in his fifth season, and again when he re-signed for a sixth season.)

The timing of Messi's arrival, six months after his World Cup triumph, is perfect, almost too good to be true.

It comes just as MLS has moved to a new broadcast platform, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, and launched a new competition, the Leagues Cup (where the Argentine is expected to debut for Inter Miami in late July). And it comes three years ahead of the 2026 World Cup co-hosted by the USA, Canada and Mexico.

The low-hanging fruit Apple and MLS gobbled up was the segment of fans (not season-ticket holders offered the service for free) who passionately follow their home teams. But there are only so many of those fans, and they do nothing to solve MLS's longstanding inability to make in-roads in developing a national television audience. And this even as rapid expansion has created the national footprint -- 30 teams in 2025! -- MLS lacked in its early years.

Finding paying customers interested in watching games involving teams other than their favorite team might be a long way off, but finding fans interested in paying to watch Messi's Inter Miami games? That's the hope of MLS and Apple, and also Messi, who will, The Athletic reported, get a share of the revenue generated by new subscribers to MLS Season Pass.

Messi won't be the same kind of public figure Pele and Beckham were. He does not have their outgoing personalities. Nor will he be on the same clear mission of selling the sport. If anything, there's an ambiguity to Messi's move.

"After winning the World Cup and not being able to go to Barca, it's time to go to MLS to live soccer in a different way and enjoy my day-to-day life more," Messi said on Wednesday in an interview with Barcelona sports dailies Mundo Deportivo and Sport. "Obviously, with the same responsibility and desire to win, and to do things well, but with more calm."

Lionel Messi will be a reluctant ambassador, but a very high-paid ambassador, and he'll be ours, whom we'll welcome with open arms and minimal calm.

Photo: Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos

12 comments about "Messi to Miami: Timing is everything".
  1. R2 Dad, June 7, 2023 at 11:32 p.m.

    Who can play with Messi in Miami? He will see the dimension of the challenge that first day of training. For his sake, I hope the media don't catch his eye-rolling; it's going to be painful for him to experience.

  2. humble 1 replied, June 8, 2023 at 11:15 a.m.

    Messi will handle the pressure and everything just fine.  All the difficulty he faced playing for Argentina all his career.  Losing.  Over-and-over - in the World Cup and Copa America.  Never winning anything.  MLS will be a cake walk.  Remember when he missed his penalty in the Copa America Final shootout in U.S.A. vs. Chile?  He was devestated and retired from international football!  He lived with that for 5 years until winning the Copa in 2021, then the World Cup in 2022.  Now recently PSG fans booed him off the pitch in Paris - his home stadium!  Dude can suffer.  No worries here.  

  3. humble 1 replied, June 8, 2023 at 11:23 a.m.

    Let me add one nuance that a Ghanain trainer tought my son years ago.  You have to learn to play - to the level - of the players on your team.  Messi has been playing down - all his career - he is the greatest after all.  This will be maybe new level - a new low perhaps - but - he is master at this.  The bigger challenge at Miami will be the coach.  i am expecting Tata to re-appear for this.  Problem solved!  Have a nice day!   

  4. Kevin Sims, June 8, 2023 at 8:38 a.m.

    This is so wonderful for soccer in the USA in so many ways. YES!!!!!!!

  5. Santiago 1314, June 8, 2023 at 11:13 a.m.

    Does he Speak English.???
    Granted, we have a Huge Hispanic Population,
    But, they don't need Messi to get "Excited" about Soccer.
    We need the Gringos to start Watching Games... That's were the Money is,
    Unless you are Selling OIL.!!!

  6. humble 1 replied, June 8, 2023 at 11:20 a.m.

    Santi, 30 or 40% of MLB baseball players speak English as a second language, or not at all, and fly around USA for 90 games a year - paychecks keep coming in.  He'll be fine.  He's a big boy.  The travel and all that is over rated, more a factor for Europeans, and Brits, He is neither - he is used to fly back to Argentina 4x a year for International play - 8-12 hours in the plane.  He will be fine.     

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, June 10, 2023 at 7:17 p.m.

    Santi, the club is in Southern Florida. Not speaking Spanish is a handicap.

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, June 12, 2023 at 10:21 a.m.

    I'm not worried about HIM Personnally...
    But, if the Idea is to have him "Grow" the Game in USA/MLS/Apple "Griingo" Market....
    Then Most of the Cities he travels to, are going to want Interviews for Media.
    And he "SHOULD" be able to Communicate with the "Locals" in their Language for $500 Million Dollars.!!!

  9. Kent James, June 8, 2023 at 3:22 p.m.

    I love Messi, but I hope the "it's time to go to MLS to live soccer in a different way and enjoy my day-to-day life more" is not a sign that he's going to treat it like a pick-up game (though to be fair, I'd still probably pay to watch him play pick-up).  Messi has always had the intensity necessary for success at the highest level, so I would not think he would phone it in, but I thought that about Lothar Matthaus as well...

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, June 10, 2023 at 7:15 p.m.

    Above all else Messi is a competitor. It is in his DNA.

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, June 12, 2023 at 10:25 a.m.

    Bob, if you watched his Last 2 years at PSG, you would get another Impression of his "Competitiveness"
    I think he is just "Floating" thru this Next Stage, until Farca can get their "House together",
    So he can go back there and Retire as Farca player, even if it's at the Age of 40.!!!
    They will take him and he will Play.
    What i don't get is, why can't he just "Play for a Dollar".???

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, June 12, 2023 at 4:54 p.m.

    I did watch him play. He adjusted his game to a team with 3 goal scorers, instead of a team built around him. Both Neymar and Messi adjusted to doing more playmaking. Messi doing more than that than Neymar. So yes his goal production was lower, but he lead the league in assists last I saw.

    After all the hype on Mbappe, I wanted to watch to see what was going on. He is young so he should improve, but he was one of the worse passers on the team. He also was very limited in the runs he made. Neymar and Messi were putting on a show and then feeding Mbappe the ball about a third of the time. Neymar would take a shot about 40% of the time, Messi would take a shot only about 25% of the time. 

    In short, Messi was creating lots of plays as was Neymar. Mbappe was excellent at finishing balls at his feet facing goal. Get the picture? Many of the PSG fans only counted goals, and didn't consider the play on the field. Those fans were fanatic about Mbappe and antagonistic toward Messi and Neymar. 

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