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Messi joining Inter Miami is validation for Major League Soccer and its progress

Messi joining Inter Miami is validation for Major League Soccer and its progress

So, we now know when Lionel Messi will play his first game in the snazzy pink colors of Inter Miami. It will be on July 21, against Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup. Mark the date. 

And let the salvation of American soccer begin, or so the popular narrative goes. 

But there’s a problem with how the storyline is being told and the assumptions that are being made around the impending arrival of a player regarded as the best of his time and one of the greatest ever. 

Messi’s decision to join Miami and forgo both a return to Barcelona and a head-spinning financial offer from Saudi Arabia is one of the stories of the year in global soccer and a monumentally significant moment for the sport in the United States. 

Yet we need to hold short of anointing Messi as a “savior” because the situation he is coming into isn’t one that particularly needs saving. 

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Check out highlights from the MLS and Inter Miami CF’s next star, Lionel Messi from the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Major League Soccer is not among the five biggest leagues in the world, but it is in no way a product in peril, quite the opposite in fact. No league, anywhere, has grown with as much strength and force in the past decade as MLS, which has increased its overall quality, crowd numbers, television revenues and international reputation by leaps and bounds. 

Messi’s decision is the biggest splash the league could have possibly hoped for. It’s not, however, as simple as calling it a rescue act. 

“I think there will always be a ‘before and after Messi’ when we talk about the sport in the United States,” Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas told reporters. “I cannot overemphasize the magnitude of this announcement. Having the world’s greatest player here is something that is significant for our league and for the football ecosystem in the United States.” 

None of what Mas says is wrong. It is indeed a watershed moment, especially given its timing. Sure, Messi turns 36 on Saturday, but he is still just seven months removed from seven goals and leading Argentina to World Cup glory. 

This isn’t just another move, or a player heading to the United States for an easy time and a final payday. Messi, still elite at a level most players can never dream of reaching, could have had his pick of virtually any team in Europe or beyond. 

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His Miami deal – which, it must be noted, has not yet been signed – is a big-time power play, a true needle mover. Overnight, Inter Miami turned from being a lowly-ranked afterthought in MLS’ Eastern Conference to one of the most discussed clubs in the world, once news of their Messi coup emerged. 

Ticket prices for upcoming games surged almost comically, seats originally priced at less than $100 changing hands on the secondary market for nearly $1,000. For road games in different parts of the country, the demand is just as feverish.  

It is going to be a frenetic summer in American soccer, Messi’s march into MLS coming just as the United States bids to win a third straight Women’s World Cup. 

But again, this isn’t turning MLS from a disaster into something worthy. We are far beyond that. Sure, the diehards would like the progress to be swifter. While the league’s teams have created loyal and passionate followings in their local markets, MLS doesn’t carry nearly the same resonance on a national scale as the Big Four traditional leagues. 

There are plenty of American soccer fans who don’t have a fanatical love of MLS, preferring the international leagues from the likes of England, Spain, Germany and Italy. 

However, MLS is unrecognizable from how things were in 2007, a year deserving of specific mention because it is when David Beckham, now Miami co-owner, joined the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid and set off a series of chain reactions. 

In fact, the last time MLS needed saving was years before that, when it contracted to 10 teams in 2002 – and most of those were operated by just a few ownership groups. Now, there are 29 teams and the price of entry for buying a new franchise, never mind all the infrastructure surrounding it, is a whopping $500 million. 

Soccer as a whole is perceived far differently now. It wasn’t so long ago that being a soccer fan in America often came with a penalty attached, namely social scorn from the large and vociferous band of “soccer-haters.” Seriously, it was a real thing. Not now.  

Alexi reacts to Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami

Alexi Lalas, David Mosse and Stu Holden react to Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami over the likes of FC Barcelona and the Saudi League.

Given that preventing soccer from being an American non-entity does not need to be part of Messi’s remit, he can simply be enjoyed for what he brings, that dazzling footwork, unteachable creativity and the special aura that comes with sporting genius. 

It is a statement that he chose to come here, a validation of the league and where it is at, and another piece of a growing puzzle. 

The Messi era will hurry the process along and add to the progress that has already been made. It will entrench the sport further into the American psyche, particularly among younger fans.  

And Messi will be everything he always is: A professional, architect of brilliant goals and ridiculous game vision, entertainer, role model, quiet celebrity, and, you’d better believe it, one of the finest exponents of the beautiful game that has ever lived. 

You can honestly use as many superlatives as you like, and with him, it wouldn’t be overkill. Unless you call him a savior, because that’s not it. Not here, not anymore. 

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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