Lionel Messi to MLS? It's not happening. At least not yet

Doug McIntyre
·4 min read

Tuesday’s seismic news out of Barcelona — that Lionel Messi, widely considered the greatest player of all time, wants to leave the club he joined as a 13-year-old — had barely begun to spread across social media before fans and media types in the United States started speculating that Messi’s next stop could be Major League Soccer.

It’s not happening, folks. Not now. Manchester City has already emerged as an early favorite. One report suggests a deal with Pep Guardiola’s team could include a clause that Messi finishes his career with City’s sister club New York City FC after three seasons in the Premier League.

You can certainly understand why stateside supporters want Messi in MLS immediately. You can even understand why many think it might actually be possible for MLS to pull off. Messi is now 33 years old, older than his fellow global icons David Beckham and Thierry Henry were when they traded the sport’s highest level for MLS at the end of their glittering European careers.

Beckham’s landmark deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy included the rights to purchase an expansion team, which he did. Beckham’s Inter Miami finally kicked off at the beginning of this coronavirus-cursed year, and Messi is already on record telling Beckham that before he retires, he might eventually be willing to join him in South Florida. Down the road, he still could.

If Lionel Messi ever comes to MLS, it's almost certainly not going to be this year. (REUTERS/Albert Gea)
If Lionel Messi ever comes to MLS, it's almost certainly not going to be this year. (REUTERS/Albert Gea)

Some have pointed to money as the reason Messi wouldn’t ditch Europe for MLS at this stage. Makes sense. Messi earns a LeBron James-sized $35 million annual paycheck with Barca, about five times what MLS’s current highest-paid player, the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, will take home this season.

Add in a truckload endorsements, and Messi’s total annual haul in 2019 was a cool $127 million, according to Forbes. On the other hand, one of Messi’s richest endorsement deals is with sportswear giant Adidas. The German company has been MLS’s chief sponsor since 2005 and was instrumental in helping close the deal that brought Beckham, another Adidas pitchman, to Los Angeles in 2007.

If Messi wanted to come to MLS, the league would surely bend over backward to find a way, any way, to accommodate him. Who cares that Messi doesn’t boast the crossover marketing appeal of Beckham, or the social media savvy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who unlike the fiercely private, non-English-speaking Messi never met a camera he didn’t like? If you’re lucky enough to have even a small chance to go get the GOAT, you try every time.

But based on what we know, Messi doesn’t want to come to MLS. Not now. Why would he? He’s still the best player in the world. His La Liga-leading 25 goals last season prove that he’s still got plenty left to give against the game’s best. Competitiveness and ambition alone are driving this decision. It’s the reason why he wants to leave Barca to begin with.

Messi’s falling out with the club’s upper management has everything to do with the brass’s inability to replace his aging supporting cast with newcomers who can help him hoist the Champions League trophy at least once more before it’s too late. He’s clearly using his considerable leverage to put himself back into a winning situation, whether that is in Barcelona or somewhere else.

If the current standoff ends with Barca president Josep Bartomeu stepping down and a renewed commitment to building an all-world squad around Messi, maybe he stays. If not, he’s apparently willing to upend his legacy as Mr. Barcelona, prepared to step out of his comfort zone by moving to a new league and his young family to a new country — no, he’s not going to Real Madrid or any other Spanish side — just to chase a few more pieces of silverware with the likes of Man City or Paris Saint Germain or Inter Milan.

Maybe MLS is in his future after that. At best, though, Messi to America is still at least a couple more years away.

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