Messing Up the MLS

Messing Up the MLS

Seeing Lionel Messi sign with Inter Miami FC is a dream that Major League Soccer couldn’t have imagined when it was first formed in the mid-1990s. MLS was originally started because the United States wanted to host the 1994 World Cup, and FIFA was leery of giving the honors to a nation that didn’t field a top-flight soccer league. There was concern the league might not survive its infancy once the World Cup fad wore off.

So the MLS set up financial rules to curtail spending and limited teams to only so much money on a salary cap so the league would survive. But as Messi’s addition will show you, much has changed with MLS since it was founded in 1993. Having a player with the following of Lionel Messi, who will make his debut in the Leagues Cup vs. Liga MX side Cruz Azul Friday night, on the roster of an American soccer team would have been a pipe dream.

MLS had a Tough Time Early on

The league debuted in 1996 and, much like any young league, had its share of growing pains. MLS played a spring to fall schedule, unlike many other top soccer leagues, to avoid competing with football and basketball. During the first five seasons, the league lost $250 million. 

MLS also didn’t have a soccer-specific stadium until 1999, when the Columbus Crew built the first one. Once the foundation of the league was in place, the MLS spent a lot of time looking for the type of player who could draw eyeballs and corporate interest in the project.

MLS

The David Beckham Rule

Beckham, who ironically is a part-owner of Inter Miami, helped change the game for the MLS when he signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007. When the Galaxy wanted to sign Beckham for the 2007 season, the MLS came up with a designated player rule. That allowed MLS teams to sign up to three players outside the salary cap.

This resulted in the MLS bringing in a lot of strong foreign players into the system. While many of these players were aging veterans, the MLS was able to bring some young, fresh talent into the league. Over 200 designated players have been signed by MLS teams since the rule went into effect.

Inter Miami Needed an Infusion of Fresh Blood

Inter Miami’s record in league play has been abysmal this season. Over the past three months, Inter Miami has gone on an 11-game winless streak in MLS play. The Vice City team lost eight matches and drew the other three.

Inter Miami hasn’t won an MLS match since capping off a three-game winning streak with a May 13 home 2-1 win over New England. They have been outscored by 14 goals in league play and is in last place in the Eastern Conference standings.

While Inter Miami’s league record has been poor, Vice City has found some luck in cup play. Inter Miami has advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. The U.S. Open Cup is a knockout tournament for professional and amateur sides similar to the FA Cup in England.

Lionel Messi was Highly Coveted

Beckham had long been trying to lure Lionel Messi stateside. He first floated the idea in 2021, before Messi won the World Cup with Argentina. After deciding to leave French Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain, Messi surprised many observers when signing with Inter Miami. Miami’s early MLS team folded in the early 2000s, and the franchise didn’t return until the 2018 season.

Seeing Messi, who has a long list of accomplishments with Spanish club Barcelona, sign with a young club instead of seeking big money was a surprise. Messi’s long-time rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, would eventually head to Saudi Arabia instead. While numbers haven’t been disclosed by the league or the team, it is expected that MLS will pay Messi $50 to $60 million per season.

Lionel Messi has proven throughout his career how valuable he can be. During his time with Barcelona, Messi scored 474 goals in 520 appearances. He also was successful on the world stage, pocketing 103 goals for Argentina in 175 appearances. Messi led Argentina to two World Cup final appearances, including a win in the finals in Qatar in 2022.

Lionel Messi will Drive Revenue – Can he Push Inter Miami out of the Basement?

What will help Lionel Messi is that he won’t be heading to South Beach alone. Inter Miami signed former teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets to join him. Alba, a defender, joined Inter Miami after spending 11 years with Barcelona.

Inter Miami isn’t done adding just yet, as Vice City is also looking to add Luis Suarez. Suarez is best known for his time with Uruguay’s national team. However, he has had success with various clubs at the highest level of soccer.

No Longer a Retirement League?

MLS has long fought off the perception from critics that the only top players who would sign there would be players on the downside of their careers. Welsh star Gareth Bale joined LAFC to help them win the MLS Cup last season, then retired from competition after the World Cup. Messi, who is 36, was still productive with PSG last season, scoring 16 goals and creating 16 assists in 32 matches played. Messi, who won his record seventh Ballon d’Or, isn’t viewed as being on the downside of his career just yet. With the financial package he received, Messi’s progress will be scrutinized during his time with the club.

If the experiment works, it could be a boon for both sides. MLS will need to market this properly if they are going to make the most out of this investment and be able to improve their perception in a meaningful way.