Perspective | What Lionel Messi, soccer’s transcendent star, will mean for MLS

Lionel Messi is not the first global soccer superstar to come ashore in America near the end of a marvelous career.

In the 1970s and ’80s, North American Soccer League’s imports included Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. MLS has welcomed David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Didier Drogba, among many others.

The world’s game requires a world’s cast, and with most elite talent found abroad, U.S. leagues have always looked beyond borders to boost credibility and raise visibility.

But Inter Miami’s move for Messi — which still lacks a signed contract and a debut date — feels a whole lot different than the glamour signings of the past.

Lionel Messi plans to sign with MLS club Inter Miami

Yes, Messi’s best days are behind him — much like the European and South American wizards who came stateside before him. But those days aren’t that far behind him. And being a notch below peak still leaves him in the upper echelon, even though he soon will turn 36.

Last month, he helped Paris Saint-Germain win France’s Ligue 1 title with a 16-goal performance, and six months ago he raised the World Cup trophy for the first time while winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s top player and the Silver Boot as the second-highest scorer.

So what makes this imminent acquisition so grand?

“He’s the best. Simple as that,” said Englishman Wayne Rooney, D.C. United’s most famous acquisition, in 2018, and now its coach. “In my view, he is the best player to ever play the game.”

That described Pelé when he signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, but the Brazilian’s primary mission was to introduce soccer to the U.S. masses. To that point, the sport was in the shadows, beloved in immigrant communities but lacking mainstream interest.

Pelé’s influence brought the game to the suburbs and helped popularize the NASL. The foundation had been laid. The so-called soccer boom was underway.

What Pelé meant to the beautiful game

Like Pelé, Beckham was a builder — not necessarily of the sport but of MLS. Founded in 1996 — a dozen years after the NASL’s demise — the league survived a rough patch early in the century and needed a transcendent figure with on-field skills and off-field charm to take it to the next level.

In Beckham’s five years and in the decade to follow, MLS experienced exceptional growth.

Mission accomplished, Becks.

It wasn’t just Beckham. Famed footballers such as Rooney, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez proved instrumental in raising the quality of play the past 15 years.

The Messi signing, though, is special. In the wake of his World Cup breakthrough, he would come to the United States as one of the planet’s most famous humans — one who just happens to play soccer.

No one of his generation — or perhaps ever — plays the game like Messi, a mesmerizing dribbler who scores and facilitates goals with elegance, artistry and panache. That’s the difference with Beckham, whose strengths, in his later years, were limited to serving a killer cross and striking a perfect free kick.

An immortal World Cup final rewards Argentina’s Lionel Messi at last

Beckham offered great moments; Messi promises 90 minutes of wonder.

Messi will also come to a country well-versed in his genius and wanting to see it firsthand. Though he has spent his entire pro career in Europe, Messi lives on American TVs, laptops, smartphones and game consoles. (Fifty years ago, Pelé was a newspaper clipping, black-and-white photos and grainy video.)

Not everyone in America follows soccer — it still ranks behind football, baseball and basketball — but most everyone knows Messi. The World Cup final in Qatar in December — captivating theater as there ever has been in the sport, featuring Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappé in a 3-3 draw and tiebreaking shootout — drew almost 26 million U.S. viewers.

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé take different paths to lethal brilliance

Messi is the best hope yet to grow MLS’s audience. Since the Beckham bump, the league has done just fine at the box office. Messi would boost Miami’s subpar figures and, on the road, help top-off ticket sales. The secondary ticket market is licking its chops.

What MLS needs from Messi is to convert soccer fans into MLS fans. There is a difference: Not everyone who follows soccer follows MLS. If you like basketball, you’re going to watch the NBA, colleges or both. It’s the same with football.

In soccer, MLS is competing with higher-quality circuits, such as the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Champions League, and ones with a strong tradition, such as Mexico’s Liga MX. There are also national team matches and international tournaments. All of it is accessible for viewing.

MLS is counting on Messi reaching both the general soccer fan and the casual sports fan. Watching MLS, though, is not a simple matter of turning on the TV. Apple TV Plus, a subscription service, owns exclusive rights to almost all matches. (The league abandoned most standard TV coverage after last season in favor of a 10-year deal with Apple valued at $3.5 billion.)

It’s unclear how many people have been watching this season — MLS and Apple won’t share the numbers — but based on decades of TV ratings, the league has never had a large national following. MLS teams don’t have broad appeal outside their local market; players with extraordinary star power just might.

‘Argentina endures’: In Buenos Aires, emotional celebrations of a World Cup victory

When the adventure begins remains unclear. Though the MLS transfer window opens July 5, he doesn’t seem likely to debut three days later in Washington, people around the league seem to agree. The MLS All-Star Game on July 19 could provide a festive platform.

Whenever it is, the idea of Messi strolling into MLS and dominating every match is misguided, Rooney said.

“It’s not going to be easy for him,” said Rooney, who, as a Manchester United player, faced Messi in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals, both won by Barcelona. “It’s a difficult league. I don’t think he’s going to come over here and just absolutely tear it up immediately. He’s going to have to adapt to it because this league is a little bit different and it won’t be an easy ride for him.”

Perhaps, but it’s sure to be quite a ride for MLS.

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