In 2005, I had a premonition that David Beckham was going to play in Major League Soccer. At the time, he was in the Carson, California, stadium to play against the Los Angeles Galaxy as a member of Real Madrid. Most of the Galacticos on the Madrid squad seemed uninterested in doing anything more than the bare minimum for the preseason friendly game. But Beckham, with an earnest, if slightly shy grin, answered question after question from the media in the mixed zone area after the game.
It was easy to see that Beckham didn’t have the disdain for the American press and the emerging pro soccer scene that some of his Real Madrid teammates did. He seemed curious about its potential. “He’s going to play in MLS,” I thought.
Two years later, he did.
Beckham struggled with his transition to the Galaxy in 2007 and for a time after. He even left the team in 2010 to go on loan to AC Milan in order to ensure his England place, before finally winning two MLS Cup titles with the Galaxy in 2011 and 2012, his final year with the club. But in that time, Beckham unquestionably put MLS on the sporting map like never before.
In 2006, I had a similar premonition about Lionel Messi coming to MLS one day as well, though for a different reason.
Barcelona’s young star had wrapped up a press conference at the Ritz Carlton Marina del Rey ahead of yet another preseason friendly. I filed a story from the workroom allotted to the press and walked toward the main lobby to leave. The elevator doors opened and out stepped Messi, wearing an oversized T-shirt, baggy shorts, and adidas slides with socks, looking for all the world like any other tourist.
I watched as he meandered through the lobby and out to the pool area, without anyone showing him any sign of recognition. Messi, who had seemed politely guarded answering questions in the presser only an hour before, appeared utterly relaxed, enjoying his anonymity. “He’s going to move to the U.S. at some point,” I thought.
Seventeen years later, here’s Messi in MLS on Inter Miami, a team that played its first game in 2020 and is partly owned by Beckham.
So far, with the Leagues Cup trophy in hand, the Open Cup final still to play for and a once-improbable playoff spot within reach, Messi joining Inter Miami has been successful. Part of the reason could well be because Beckham’s own tenure wasn’t initially so, and he’s looked out for Messi based on that.
Beckham, who was shown on video moved to tears by Messi’s first goal, a game-winning free kick against Cruz Azul, helped pave the way for Messi’s success by applying the lessons of his own MLS tenure. It’s almost as if Beckham was watching — with complete satisfaction, not jealousy — Messi live out an MLS dream start that the England midfielder had wanted for himself years ago.
David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 to much fanfare but the Englishman underwhelmed in his first few years. In 2011 and 2012, he helped the Galaxy to back-to-back MLS titles.
The official on-site announcement of Beckham to the Galaxy took place on a sunny day, while Messi’s presentation at Inter Miami’s stadium was delayed by a driving storm. Weather contrasts aside, it was Beckham in 2007 who was battling an ankle injury that would affect his playing time for the rest of his first season. Messi has been healthy, albeit fatigued at times due to a heavy schedule of games in three competitions at once, in addition to international duties with Argentina.
On the business end of things, Messi’s playing deal was made possible because he not only has, like Beckham did in an unprecedented arrangement back in his playing days, a cut from every MLS jersey bearing his name that is sold, but Messi also reportedly gets a percentage of Apple TV MLS sign-ups. Messi also has a deal for an MLS ownership stake where the details are still under wraps (though we do know it’s not the exact arrangement Beckham had, where his ownership price for Inter Miami was capped at $25 million).
On the field, the Galaxy had their own stars when Beckham joined, namely Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan, but neither were players who understood and meshed with Beckham’s game like Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba do with Messi. Their signings have been crucial to Messi’s success, with both players helping set up Messi goals.
Though Beckham tried for a few years to run a namesake academy on the Galaxy’s home ground, the system structure needed for true youth development didn’t exist in the league at the time. It does now, with every MLS team running top-level training and reaping the benefits of young players advancing through the ranks. Messi’s two oldest sons, Thiago and Mateo, play for Inter Miami’s academy teams, while their dad plays with Benjamin Cremaschi, an 18-year-old academy product of Argentine descent now making an impact with the first team.
Perhaps most importantly, while Beckham endured a volatile coaching situation at the Galaxy, where Frank Yallop wilted in the aftermath of the marquee signing and Ruud Gullit proved to be an expensive failure, before Bruce Arena finally righted the ship, Inter Miami has been solid in the coaching department right from the start of Messi’s MLS tenure. Tata Martino not only has MLS coaching experience from his stint with Atlanta United, but he’s also the closest version of what Alex Ferguson once was to Beckham that Messi has in his own playing history. Beckham was willing to push aside his old friend, Phil Neville, for the coach who was an ideal fit for Messi.
Even personal details Beckham has attended to, like inviting Messi’s family out to dinner with his own and taking on some of the publicity and press load, show a consideration on Beckham's part to make sure that Messi’s transition to the U.S. goes as smoothly as possible.
Beckham, whose upcoming documentary shows some of the trials and tribulations he’s gone through in his career, has been able to apply the lessons learned from his blockbuster arrival in 2007 to help make Messi’s own game-changer addition to the league, over a decade later, a resounding triumph.