Ten games. Eleven goals. One trophy. Zero losses. Lionel Messi, on the strength of a laser left foot and a nose for the back of the net, has changed the trajectory of a league and franchise in barely a month’s span, elevating Inter Miami from laughingstock to the toast of MLS in record time.
It helps that Messi’s star turn has come at a relatively quiet time on the sports calendar, competing with the Little League World Series and NFL preseason slate, among other opponents in the live event sector. Regardless of the circumstances, Messi’s impact has been immediate, more than living up to his reputation as a global icon in leading Miami to nine straight wins and a Leagues Cup title to boot.
The 36-year-old has been otherworldly, impressing with mind-blowing feats of football wizardry, none more captivating than his game-winner to stun Mexican side Cruz Azul, cashing in a 24-yard set piece in his home debut. Remarkably, Messi’s on-field heroics pale in comparison to the empire he’s built off the pitch, his mere presence fueling incredible demand for tickets and merchandise. Ever the entrepreneur, the seven-time Ballon d’or recipient has cleverly positioned himself as the new face of Apple TV, with streamers subscribing en masse to games on MLS Season Pass.
LIONEL ANDRÉS MESSI IS NOT HUMAN. pic.twitter.com/2mBDI41mLy
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 22, 2023
Messi has enjoyed a smoother transition than anyone could have imagined, adjusting so seamlessly, in fact, that Twitter skeptics have begun to plant the theory MLS must be scripting it, staging elaborate scenarios to make the diminutive striker appear almost superhuman.
I speak for all Americans and football lovers when I say we are tired of these MLS rigged and scripted matches !!!
— Emmanuel Tate (@ballonstagger) August 24, 2023
I’m starting to think Messi’s goals at the MLS are all staged to promote the league…
— AJ (@FinoAllaFine282) August 27, 2023
Things that are strange to believe;
– How Inter Miami's opponents went bad suddenly
– How Messi improved the team with 100% effect
With the above, its easy to sell the conspiracy theory of scripted matches cos how can a team so bad just 2 months ago are now VERY GOOD. pic.twitter.com/zaTRIqlKCO
— POOJA!!! (@PoojaMedia) August 27, 2023
It’s a laughable suggestion and one that speaks to our collective cynicism, though, given how much the league has invested in him, Messi can expect at least some level of preferential treatment. Problematic as that might sound, it’s no different than referees turning a blind eye to LeBron James’ rampant traveling or flagging any defender in Tom Brady’s zip code. For MLS, Messi is more than a superstar—he’s an entire economy, one worth protecting at all costs.
Critics will write off Messi’s early success as beginner’s luck, padding his stats in a meaningless midseason tournament. Others would argue it’s beneath him, running circles around a league that presents little challenge to a player of Messi’s elite stature. But to even be having this discussion is surreal. The Argentinian could have gone anywhere to finish his illustrious career but somehow, by the grace of God, settled on Fort Lauderdale. If that doesn’t blow your mind, nothing will.
Compared to many of his more flamboyant counterparts in pro soccer (abrasive locker-room diva Cristiano Ronaldo or the equally high-maintenance Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for instance), Messi has never been a particularly charismatic presence, perceived by some as distant and uninteresting. And while he’ll never match Ronaldo’s bravado or showmanship, Messi has been much more demonstrative since joining Miami, embracing his role as a veteran leader while displaying a level of enthusiasm that was clearly absent from his previous stint with Paris Saint-Germain. Though he’s largely been shielded from the media, Messi has made a strong impression the few times we’ve seen him in front of a microphone, showing rare candor with thoughtful responses reflecting on his career and future in the sport he helped shape.
If nothing else, you have to admire Messi’s commitment, appearing in all 10 games since his arrival (as a compromise to “load management,” he came on as a late substitute Saturday, logging 30 minutes off the bench against the Red Bulls) while even expressing his willingness to play on artificial turf, which had previously been a dealbreaker for Ibrahimovic. We’re in the honeymoon phase, but how long will it last? With football season fast approaching, only time will tell if Messi’s star shines bright enough to keep Miami in the news cycle, or if viewer apathy rears its ugly head, the novelty wearing off like a sorcerer’s spell.
Landing the big fish isn’t the hard part. That’s been done before. MLS has frequently pursued overseas talent, opening its doors to Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and David Beckham (now a part owner of Inter Miami), albeit at the end of their careers.
Messi is by no means a player on the decline—look no further than his performance at last year’s World Cup, outdueling French phenom Kylian Mbappe (his club teammate at the time) in perhaps the most thrilling final the event has ever produced. Still, given his mileage (though he admittedly spends most of the game walking, conserving his energy better than anyone in the history of the sport) and how little he has to prove, his legacy secure as the greatest player of his generation (if not of all time), it wouldn’t be a surprise if Messi pivoted to an ownership or ambassador role by the time Inter Miami opens its new stadium in 2025.
Messi no doubt has more in the tank than Beckham did when the Galaxy introduced him as their new centerpiece in 2007, though many will inevitably label it a cash grab, resigned to MLS’s long-held perception as a retirement community for aging stars. Said phenomenon actually predates the MLS, beginning with Pele’s defection to the New York Cosmos in the late 70s.
Even if more names follow (Neymar and Ronaldo would seem to be prime candidates), it would amount to little more than window dressing, failing to address what has long been MLS’s fatal flaw—a maddening inability to produce in-house talent, outsourcing stars rather than developing their own. And, on the rare occasions a player of international caliber has emerged, most have quickly graduated to Europe, using MLS as a stepping stone to a more competitive brand of soccer elsewhere.
Maybe, in some parallel universe, there’s an alternate timeline where Freddy Adu bucks that trend, forever changing MLS’s narrative. But alas, the former teenage prodigy never panned out, fading into obscurity before his career could ever get off the ground. The fact Christian Pulisic never even considered MLS when he turned pro at 16 says all you need to know about the state of U.S. soccer. It probably doesn’t help that most games are buried behind a paywall on Apple TV, made less accessible to casual fans who might not have the bandwidth or disposable income to feed their curiosity.
America has long maintained a hostile attitude toward soccer, lamenting its lack of scoring and leisurely pace compared to the more action-driven likes of football and basketball. It’s dismissive and petty, indicative of a close-minded viewing public that can only stomach its sports deep-fried in beer ads and gratuitous violence. But it’s also our reality, with soccer still seen as the little brother desperate for attention, banished to the kids table with other niche outfits like the NHL, tennis and the WNBA.
Even if it’s reduced to a footnote on debate shows like First Take and Undisputed, MLS is bigger than the grassroots, mom-and-pop operation it’s portrayed as, boasting 29 clubs with a 30th on the way (San Diego’s unnamed expansion team arrives in 2025). With anticipation building for the next World Cup in 2026—the first to be played on U.S. soil since 1994—and the cultural phenomenon of Ted Lasso, Messi couldn’t have landed on America’s doorstep at a more opportune time, with soccer closer than it’s ever been to achieving mainstream popularity.
The momentum is real, but let’s not get carried away. Building a world soccer power from scratch isn’t an overnight assignment. That evolution takes generations, beginning at the youth level with a top-down commitment to creating a winning culture. Maybe it won’t happen in our lifetimes. But Messi has at least made MLS relevant, which is more than enough for right now.