Lionel Messi Gives MLS Its Best Chance At Becoming One Of The Top Leagues In The World

There’s a Major League Soccer stadium about 15 minutes away from where I live. It’s quite nice, a very comfortable stadium with modern amenities that opened in 2021 and gets filled up for games in the heart of downtown. That stadium is about 10 minutes away from an older stadium, which I affectionately refer to as a dump that used to house the team in an emptier area near the state fairgrounds. That building is a cathedral of American soccer, the first soccer-specific stadium built by an MLS club and site of some of the most well-known performances in the history of the United States men’s national team.

The fact that the team plays in the nice new stadium is, legitimately, one of the most remarkable stories in American sports. A longer read on it is right here but the extreme CliffNotes version: The old owner of the team really wanted to move the club to Texas if he couldn’t get a shiny new downtown stadium, the city and state were really not into the idea of the team moving, the fans were R E A L L Y not into the idea of the team moving, and eventually, through sheer force of will, the fans were able to get a group of investors to buy the club and put up most of the money for the new building.

It is the sort of fairytale story of the power of fandom that should be the biggest sports story in the entire country. Unless you are really in-tune with the goings on in MLS, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’ve really been made aware of the details of the whole thing.

This story popped into my head, weirdly enough, when it became clear that Lionel Messi is going to play for Inter Miami, one of the newest clubs in MLS and a side whose efforts to lure the greatest player to ever live have gone on for years. MLS is a league that has aspirations of being the one of the best in the world. Despite the fact that its first season happened in 1996 and it’s playing catch-up on leagues that are far more established, MLS wants to be the kind of place that attracts talent to the United States and becomes one of the top leagues on the planet.

For as much as American sports fans like to say they love good stories — the underdog teams, the players that punch above their weight, the examples of fans rallying together to showcase what happens when a community is more powerful than one craven rich dude — the average person wants to watch the best athletes perform a sport at the highest level. Many believe “American” is synonymous with “best,” no matter how many bits of evidence we have that this is not the case.

One of the places where that is generally true is in the world of sports. The NBA, NHL, MLB, and WNBA are all leagues that primarily exist in the United States, while the NFL is the most uniquely American thing that we have. All of them are the best versions of their sports in the world. This applies to college athletics, as well, and in the world of soccer, the United States has the best and most successful women’s team on the planet. How, then, could Major League Soccer — a good league, but one that is generously the 10th-12th best in the world — stand any chance of breaking through in its own backyard?

For the hardcore soccer fan in the United States, it’s been through the league’s rock solid efforts to develop young talent that can play at the highest levels of the sport, whether that comes through the league’s academies, a la Leeds United midfielder Tyler Adams, or by purchasing promising youngsters from South America, developing them, and flipping them to European clubs for quite the profit, a la Newcastle winger Miguel Almiron. For the more casual observer of sports, the path is, and has been, through stars. Over the years, MLS has tried to do a delicate balancing act, as it does not want to have the label of being a retirement league while simultaneously understanding that it’s never getting Kylian Mbappe in his prime to come over here.

The league has seen Carlos Valderrama, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaka, David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Wayne Rooney, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all come through its doors. Just last year, Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini both joined Los Angeles Football Club and helped them win MLS Cup. They’re all revered players, some of the greatest of their eras, that generally came at the end of their careers. Many of them made MLS the last stop before they decided to go enjoy the next chapter in their lives.

Save for Beckham and possibly Ibrahimovic/Rooney, none of them were gigantic names in the American sports consciousness by the time they came over. And in the case of Beckham, while he was a wonderful footballer and the closest thing to Messi in terms of a guy coming over while he could still get it done at a high level in Europe, he didn’t have the same level of bona fides and magnetic qualities that demanded people drop what they were doing and tune in. Essentially, if MLS got a big player, it wasn’t the sort of name that got the average person to think that they could tune in and watch someone special, and if you were a soccer fan, you knew you’d be tuning into someone whose best days are behind them.

In Messi, MLS finally got the superstar who changes every single bit of this equation. He’s not the player he was at the very height of his powers — no one in my lifetime ever will be, and no one in any lifetime that led up to this point has been — but he still has a claim to be the best player on the planet. It is very possible that, when the Ballon d’Or is given out in August, this short Argentinian who plays in MLS is going to lift it. He is, for the first time in the nearly three decade-long history of the league, the biggest star on and off the pitch, the exact player who is worthy of the lucrative, weird, complex, stakeholder-filled contract that he has reportedly received and all the attention that he generated by making this decision. The fact that he is going to a horrible team that just sacked its manager and might be on the verge of making moves that reinforce the “retirement league” thing doesn’t matter. All that matters is Messi. All that matters in the sport is Messi. And Messi is now in MLS.

All of this is to say: For how worthy of celebration all of this is for the league, it’s by no means the finish line. It’s the end of the pursuit of Messi, yes, but it’s the start of what is essentially the three-and-a-half-year sprint that will define how the league is perceived by, well, everyone. The biggest event in the sport, the World Cup, is coming to the United States as part of a joint bid with Canada and Mexico in 2026. It’s the first time the men’s version of the event has happened on American soil since 1994, an event which came under the condition that U.S. Soccer would establish a top footballing league. That happened in 1993, the first MLS game took place in 1996, and 27 years later, we’re here.

A World Cup inherently puts the top domestic league and the soccer culture in the host country under a spotlight. While the 1994 World Cup was an example of what that could be in the United States, the 2026 World Cup is going to be a check-in on what’s happened since then, and whether the aspirations of becoming a player on the world stage is reachable or, if MLS is lucky, here. Back in 2010, when the U.S. was still in the running to host the 2022 World Cup, MLS commissioner Don Garber (who is still at the helm today) had this to say.

“We have a very specific goal,” Garber said. “If we get the World Cup, we want to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022.”

“If we get the World Cup, we have a 12-year plan,” he said. “And that’s not just by our own measure, but how we’re perceived by the rest of the world.”

Obviously, Qatar got the 2022 World Cup. But still, in 2015, Garber reiterated his belief that MLS had the chance to do something special in the not too distant future, and funny enough, he cited a comment from one of the European stars who came to the league and remarked on his experience.

“When you guys had the LA Galaxy-New York City game and Steven Gerrard came on and said it will be one of the best leagues in the world within 10 years, we didn’t feed him that,” Garber added. “Think of the soccer movement, and all that we’re doing to invest in players and facilities, and becoming a league of choice for guys like Sebastian Giovinco.

“I do believe in 10 years’ time or less, people will think of us like Serie A, La Liga, and hopefully the way they think about the Premier League. If we continue to do things right and stay to our plan.”

You never has as much time as you think, and while the World Cup is far down the road right now, MLS doesn’t have the luxury of being ultra patient in the coming years. If, in a worst-case scenario, the league cannot clear the bar it has set now, with the greatest player to ever live in tow and a World Cup coming, it’s fair to wonder if that will happen any time soon, particularly with the top leagues in Europe throwing around more money than ever.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s unclear where getting a player as great and prominent as Messi fits into that plan Garber referenced in 2015 — how important he is, when on the timeline Garber wanted this level of star to come, if he viewed it as necessary, etc. But nevertheless, Messi’s here now, the player on the planet who is most likely to single-handedly lift MLS to its goal. The World Cup that was so coveted in 2010 because of what could come as a result is on the horizon. Because of all this, the opportunity for Major League Soccer to reach the lofty heights it’s strived to reach for years is more attainable than ever, and if all goes right, the very nice stadiums like the one where I live will be packed full of fans who get to say they’re watching one of the best leagues in the world.