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A realist's view on Messi's move to MLS

I don't know if this is going to work out as wonderfully as some suggest, but it's not going to make MLS look bad.

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Editor’s note: We haven’t really made a habit of talking about issues that aren’t directly linked to the Sounders too much, but we made an exception this week. By all means, let us know if you’d like to see more of this kind of stuff (or less).

As you may have heard, a guy named Lionel Messi has officially made his debut for Inter Miami. It has gotten a lot of attention, as it should have.

Those of us who have been working the soccer beat for awhile have been expecting this day to come eventually. As far back as 2010, though, I remember writing about how there is such a thing as too much attention. I want to see MLS succeed as much as anyone, but I’d be lying if I said I am looking forward to all that increased attention brings.

We were given a stark preview this week of what the future may hold. Without getting into all of the hyper-ventilating, hyperbolic and hyper-attention-seeking takes that have been circulating, I figured now might be a good time to share some of my perspectives on what we’ve been seeing.

Messi is still one of the best players in the world

Almost no matter how you want to look at it, Messi’s status as one of the world’s best soccer players in the world remains intact. Even ignoring that he’s coming off a year in which he led Argentina to the World Cup title while winning the tournament’s Golden Ball and scoring a brace in the final, he was also extremely good for PSG. Just looking at the basic counting stats, Messi’s 16 non-penalty goals were sixth most in Ligue 1 and his 32 goals+assists were tied for second. He was also fifth in non-penalty xG (15.5) and first in xA (13.3). If you’re more of a visual learner, this is his how he compares to other attacking midfielders and wingers across the big 5 European leagues and European competitions:

The takeaway from this is obviously that Messi needs to work on his defending.

Sure, he was kinda booed out of town

One of the more ridiculous things that’s been written about Messi’s move to MLS is the suggestion that he left Europe because he couldn’t hack it anymore. In that story, it implied that Messi was basically booed out of town by upset PSG fans. While I suppose that’s, like, technically true — he was booed on several occasions — I’ll note that it had a lot less to do with his play and much more to do with the circumstances of his situation.

When Messi was signed two seasons ago, it was sort of assumed that he’d help PSG finally get over the Champions League hump. Admittedly, he did not do that. He also had some off-field issues that at one point involved him taking an unexcused absence from PSG to fulfill some sort of commitment as a brand ambassador for Saudi Arabia.

In any case, among Messi’s reasons for leaving PSG it does not appear that one of them was “Ligue 1 is too hard.”

Yes, he’s going to make MLS defenses look silly

Given how well Messi has performed against the literal best teams in the world, it should not be surprising that he’s looked pretty damn good against North American competition as well. In MLS, particularly, there has long been a massive gap between money spent on offensive players and defenders.

We’ve seen this dichotomy present itself in multiple ways, but the easiest illustration might be in how often we’ve seen the single-season scoring record fall. After Roy Lassiter set the scoring record in 1996, it wasn’t until 2012 when Chris Wondolowski equaled his 27 goals. Bradley Wright-Phillips hit that number in 2014, then Josef Martinez broke it with 31 in 2018 and followed that up with a 27-goal campaign in 2019, which was only good for third-most in the league that year. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had 30 goals that year and Carlos Vela went over the top of both of them with 34.

No one has put up numbers quite like that in the last few years, but I bring this up only to note that it would hardly be shocking if Messi went for 40 if he plays something like a full season in 2024. I’ll note, however, that 40 goals wouldn’t even be a Top 3 season for Messi, who once scored 50 goals in 37 La Liga games (2011-12).

I don’t think any of this reflects poorly on MLS

One of the world’s best players might score goals for fun in MLS? You mean, just like he’s been doing on the international and club stage for the last 15 years? Oh, that’s an unexpected development innit?

Look, I don’t deny that some people will look at what Messi does in MLS and use it as a cudgel against the league. If their point is “well, MLS isn’t up to Messi’s standard” I suppose I kinda agree. The simple fact is that there are no other players in MLS on his level, either playing defense or in attack.

But you know what? There aren’t that many players on Messi’s level anywhere. My very strong suspicion is that people who think Messi’s performance in MLS reflects poorly on MLS weren’t really inclined to believe otherwise. I’m also guessing that if Messi flops — which, he won’t — that they’ll either write it off as him being old or maybe just ignore it entirely. My point is that these people are not interested in an intellectually honest conversation.

What about <waves hands> all the other stuff surrounding his signing?

As one of those dorks who actually tries to understand MLS rules, I’ll admit that I’m also a little bemused by how Inter Miami is doing all this stuff while staying within the rules. I will say, however, that if I trust anyone to be doing this on the up and up that it’s Chris Henderson.

I still don’t understand how they got away with not having Kieran Gibbs’ transition from player to pundit count as their one-time buyout, but it does appear as though they managed to find someone to take Rodolfo Pizarro’s contract off their hands. The rest of the stuff is honestly pretty standard MLS stuff where you have players being from DP to TAM or signing additional U22s. Do I think there might be shenanigans with Jordi Alba taking an 80% pay cut to play alongside Messi? Sure, but I’m not as worried about that. But am I worried that the league is somehow gifting Messi to Miami? No. That’s the only team he was apparently interested in playing for and they were the team willing to pay him more than $50 million a year. More importantly, they were willing to do all the work — apparently dating back to 2019 — to make Messi comfortable with the idea of coming to MLS.

I get why Sounders fans — to pick one fanbase — are frustrated that their front office is telling them that they don’t have the flexibility to do anything while Miami seems to be doing whatever they want. There are definitely optical issues.

At the same time, maybe it’s good that Miami’s owners are pushing the envelope. They definitely aren’t wrong that MLS needs to be more flexible in how owners are allowed to spend money if they really want to compete on the global stage. If fans around the league are seeing what Miami is doing and asking the owners of their teams “why not us?” that’s probably overdue.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s going to be a lot more attention on MLS now that the most famous person in the world is playing here. There are going to be downsides to that, and I’m not sure if the most bold predictions of growth will come true, but the idea that this is actually bad for MLS is laughable. Try to enjoy it.

It’s not all sunshine and unicorns, either

As I said, I don’t think Messi’s signing is bad for MLS in most measurable ways. Don’t mistake that for me acting as though there’s no downside. It’s not so much Messi’s signing that’s a problem, it’s what change it heralds.

I often talk with some fellow media folks about how in many ways I think we’re in the golden age of MLS. By that I mean while the soccer will surely get better, these still feel like community clubs. For instance, on Wednesday I happened to take my dad and two daughters to training with me. Totally by coincidence, it was friends and family day, meaning a lot of Sounders employees were there with spouses and children.

After training, the players just sort of milled about making small talk, signing autographs and taking pictures with whoever approached them. I introduced my dad and daughters to a few players and Schmetzer. It was very casual. Granted, this was a special event but one of the worst-kept secrets is that any random fan can show up to Starfire any random day and get virtually anyone to do the same stuff as long as they ask nicely.

If stuff like that ever happened at Inter Miami, I really doubt it’s going to happen now. Similarly, I strongly suspect the clock is ticking on how long that level of access continues for Sounders fans. Maybe that gets cut off as soon as next year when they move to Longacres. Maybe it goes on a little longer. I’m sure it won’t last forever.

There might never be another Messi who comes to MLS, but more and more famous players are going to be coming here. With them will come fans who have different expectations and different types of engagement. Some of that will be good, some of it won’t.