Lionel Messi may not save MLS but he can have a lasting impact on football in America

Argentine star confirmed this week that he will join Inter Miami when his PSG contract expires this month

Lionel Messi may be 35 years old but having led Argentina to World Cup glory just six months ago, he still remains one of the best players in the world. PA
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Lionel Messi shocked many when he announced he would be signing with Major League Soccer's Inter Miami when he leaves Paris Saint-Germain at the end of this month.

MLS, the top-tier in professional men’s football in the United States, began in 1996 but has long struggled to find the same success as other leading leagues around the world, such as England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.

While MLS has had its share of big-name signings over the years – David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard have all had stints Stateside – Messi is undoubtedly the biggest.

So while all eyes will be tuned into MLS next season when the Argentine superstar makes his debut for Inter Miami, will this be enough to finally grow the league into what it has always hoped to be?

Growing up in the US, I could always see how MLS struggled to draw in fans. I still remember watching Taylor Twellman and the New England Revolution play in a half-full Gillette Stadium with plenty of visible empty seats. It looked a bit depressing compared to when the New England Patriots would play to their sell-out crowds in the NFL.

I should preface all this by saying that I grew up in small town in western Massachusetts where “soccer” is our sport. Unlike other American high schools that focus on American football or baseball, thanks to our large Portuguese community, both the boys’ and girls’ football teams were not only the most successful but also the most popular.

Most children are even taught to play the sport at a young age, regardless of whether they want to continue when they get older.

But even my own football-loving classmates had more of a preference for teams and players abroad rather than the home team just a couple of hours away. I’d see more Luis Figo and Iker Casillas jerseys than I would of anything related to MLS.

While I’m sure there will be initial interest in Messi’s arrival to Inter Miami, I’m not sure if it will be enough to get football fans to suddenly start watching more of the league long-term.

And to suddenly pit hopes that Messi can be the one to single-handedly turn it all around seems unfair. Yes, Messi is an elite player, but he also needs to have some elite competition to really make things interesting and, at the moment, it's questionable whether that exists.

A football fan takes a photograph of a mural of Lionel Messi outside of the Fiorito restaurant in Miami.  AP Photo

Another issue for MLS is that it competes against other major American sports leagues such as the NFL (American football), MLB (baseball), NBA (basketball) and NHL (hockey). However, unlike those leagues – which can boast of being the best in the world for those sports – MLS still has some catching up to do.

Whereas top athletes in their respective field want to compete in the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL, aspiring football players in America have plenty of choices when it comes to growing their careers, with most usually looking to Europe or Asia. Even some of the best current players on the US men's national team, such as Christian Pulisic who plays for Chelsea, are abroad.

It also doesn’t help that MLS has developed a reputation for being a place ageing stars go to finish off their careers before retiring. However, at 35, while Messi may not be at the peak of his powers any more, his recent World Cup performances in Qatar should prove there’s still plenty left he can give on the field.

Despite all of this, there is also still some hope for MLS but it won't only be the short-term gain.

Perhaps Messi’s biggest legacy won’t be what he does for Inter Miami, but what his time spent in the league will mean for children in the US who get to grow up watching him play through an even closer lens.

Europe has been lucky for decades to have players the calibre of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi for young children to aspire to. But even when the US has home-grown talent, they tend to leave for other clubs overseas.

Even if Messi's biggest contribution won't be winning the MLS Cup or setting records, but instead helping grow the game so that future superstars will want to play in the US instead of going abroad, maybe this could be considered the greatest long-term payoff for MLS.

Updated: June 08, 2023, 12:18 PM