The Messi paradox

Photo courtesy MLS Communications / USA Today Sports — Sam Navarro

Lionel Messi plays his first MLS match tomorrow night.

But you already knew that. Or, if you read the first 9 articles in any day in July you did. The icon has been a feature there since long before his announcement this week.

It’s a win-win for the league in a lot of ways.

It’s also a lose-lose.

The win-win scenario

Messi means eyeballs.

Like Beckham before him, or Henri, Gerrard, Lampard, and Silva (The Ringer has a great summary of former MLS global names), the curious soccer mind will want to watch.

At least a little bit for a little while, right?

That’s a win – and making those eyeballs paying ones via Apple TV+ means revenue. That’s a win too.

For as much curiosity the world had when Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the Carson, CA field with LA Galaxy, Messi is a different beast. More successful than any predecessors before him and more universally well-liked, he should move the meter to a level in this country perhaps not seen since Pelé. Heck, tickets are purportedly going for six-figures for tonight’s match – an “in the room when it happened” moment like few others.

Whether Inter Miami wins games or not, it’s a win for the league.

Or is it?

The lose-lose scenario

Maybe the Herons do win games.

The cellar dwellers would need a heck of a run to reach the playoffs, but it’s not out of the question. With the likes of Messi (and his old pals Sergio Busqets and Jordi Alba, each of whom would be a coup in their own right but have become footnotes in Messi’s shadow), not to mention the other players rumored to be en route, who would bet against it happening?

That’s a lose for the league, unfortunately.

For all the progress the nearly three decade old competition has made, a retirement team of late thirty-somethings coming and running roughshod on a last place team is a bad look – more than that, it reinforces every stereotype the league has been trying to shed.

If Miami loses every match though, that’s a lose too.

Maybe the chemistry never clicks, the goals never come, age creeps in (on turf, on another 4-hour flight, etc…), or injuries mount. That’s the obvious scenario, and would make a lot of those curious eyeballs OK with cancelling their subscriptions after a few months.

Here’s the worse one: MLS proves to actually be difficult.

Just like every foreign player has ever said, just like Wayne Rooney reiterated last week, just like Gabriel Heinze found out while being swept out of Concacaf and then out of town, just like MLS IS, the league is a slog. What if the Monstars can’t hack it, can’t steal points in St. Paul, MN on a cold Wednesday, find themselves on a team that just simply gets outplayed?

Not a single person in the world would ever give the league credit, that’s why.

The excuses would pour in, forgiving the stars for every error because of who they were before they came and the nobodys lining up around them. Smart coaching to neutralize the attack? Messi didn’t care in that game, that’s why, or the tactics were cowardly as Heinze said. Great individual performances to keep names off the stat sheet? An anomaly, that’s why. And so on, and so on,…

This is what will happen because this is what happened already.

As Zlatan scored in buckets against MLS’s turnstile defenses, the memes wrote themselves. Then, when he went to Milan immediately after and did the same thing, he was a savant against a league that so prides itself on tactics, defending, and honor. It was less than two months between scoring against LAFC and Cagliari, but the player’s Italian Wikipedia page labels the sudden transfer, for example as, “The return to the high levels.”



Messi is must-watch TV.

To be fair, he has been since he was a teenager so nothing has changed. What has changed is his team, and that team is in MLS.

That’s a good thing, even when it’s a bad one.


  1. I’ve been having these discussions with friends and was struggling to explain clearly what I meant, this article does that expertly, so thank you.
    I more worry that they won’t make the playoffs and it will end up being for nothing anyway. Strange situation to be in but always a positive, regardless of anything else, to have this type of attention. MLS needs to grab hold and step up to take advantage. Increase spending. Get rid of turf. Bring up the level of the league. USE this.
    There was never, and will never, be a bigger opportunity for soccer in this country than these next 3 years. I’m already very worried about the USMNT and Berhalter blowing the chance and I’m really hoping that MLS doesn’t either. This could truly be the tipping point, but those in charge need to get their shit together.

  2. Actually, Messi plays his first MLS match tomorrow night – Friday, July 21.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    It’s a lose for the league. Just see the NASL in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s when the Cosmos tried this. People attended Cosmos games in droves. And no one attended games they weren’t involved in. And then the league folded within a few years. Does anyone really expect Messi to stick around even as long as Pele did (3 years)? So either Messi will raise interest in Miami games but diminish interest in others or he will be here for such a short time that he really won’t make much of an impact on the field and most new fans will likely go elsewhere once he leaves.
    On a separate note, wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. Women’s World Cup game gets better ratings than Miami’s game tomorrow night? The two overlap (9pm and 8pm starts). I’m planning on watching the women.

    • The U.S. Women’s World Cup game will undoubtedly get better ratings than Inter Miami-Cruz Azul. The Leagues Cup match will be on Apple and Univision while the WWC game will be aired on FOX. Big FOX.

      I hope Messi substantially raises interest in MLS. But my concern is that newcomers to the league will only want to watch him and Inter Miami. Certainly, not the other teams.

      Actually, you can both games tomorrow night. Well, the first half of Inter Miami-Cruz Azul and then the start of the U.S.-Vietnam match.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        You’ve hit the nail on the head. Viewership of Miami games will go up, but it’s unlikely that more people will watch non-Miami games. If anything, it will hurt attendance at other games since someone who just paid $1000 a ticket to watch Miami come to town is unlikely to want to lay out money to go to other home games where he is not playing.
        And I’m planning on watching the 2 hour pregame show for the US-Vietnam game rather than watching and leagues cup games not involving the Union.

      • SoccerDad says:

        The other issue with new eyes only watching the Miami games is that they will see a team Miami that has 3 aging stars, and some dreck, and will believe that the rest of MLS is like the dreck, ignoring the fact that there was a reason they were dead last in the entire league.

    • Gruncle Bob says:

      Pele did not kill the NASL. He left after the ’77 season. NASL average attendance exceeded 13k/game from ’77-’83. By comparison, MLS attendance for the same period (league season 10-16) was about 16.5k/game.
      Over expansion, going from 9 teams in ’73 to 24 in ’78 and increasing player wages, due to the expansion and trying to keep up with the Death Star (Cosmos), eventually killed the league in ’85.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I know Pele didn’t kill the NASL, it was the players that came after him with huge salaries like Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Neeskens and others.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    Maybe because I am getting older, maybe because I want the league to continue to grow, etc… I just don’t want to be cynical about MLS. I am happy Messi is here. It’ll bring excitement and eyeballs – just as Peter’s article says. If it brings millions of eyeballs and thousands stick around, that’s more than they had pre-Messi. The next few years should help the league grow, with Messi, the World Cup being here, etc. I hope our club stays with the trend that will be coming (I assume), of spending more. To me, that’s the thing I am the most concerned about – rather than anything else. I’m just going to enjoy it all.

  5. santo bevacqua says:

    I am very worried because Messi does not play soccer he plays football. This is important he may demand a change from mls to mlf or the retirement league LOL. Someone said
    that there is no literal translation for (soccer)

  6. The Chopper says:

    Thanks to Messi, no one is discussing the absolute travesty that was billed as an All Star Game. Time to finally pull the plug on that annual s**t show.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I can’t believe Messi didn’t make the all star team given the amount of time he’s spent on top of the league’s web page.

    • Gruncle Bob says:

      I agree, and have never liked the MLS vs. EPL preseason team format. They had a great concept, MLS vs. Liga MX and then stopped. Why I wonder? Why not use that as the lead-in to the Leagues Cup?
      Just doesn’t make sense to me.

      • Agree 100%. A team is always going to beat a bunch of individuals – the Champions League winners would beat the World Cup winners.
        Much prefer all-stars vs all-stars.

  7. I do wonder how the Messi effect will increase team spending? Will the teams throughout the league get more money to spend on players? Will players get a bump in pay because of the influx of revenue? Will that increase in player pay lead to an increase in the skill of the middle tier players and, thereby, an increase in the skill on display in the games?
    I certainly hope so.

  8. I attended many, many NASL games, Cosmos games at Yankee Stadium. Cosmos assembled a global all star team, never played together before and the team was above any league.

    Miami is simply assembling Meesi familiar “frat boys’ who are hoping for “Cocoon” (movie) magic in an ‘inferior league’.

    Unless the word has come down from Don “Grabmoremoney”… MLS PRO refs will drive these “frat boys” nuts and Miami won’t even make the play offs.

  9. Deez Nuggs says:

    Jordi Alba did sign today.
    My prediction: the three of them struggle to bed in and make a real difference this season. The David Gas’s theorem holds true. Messi looks like the best player on the field a bunch because he is, and just enough to put off a lot of the naysayers who would otherwise question his age. “He can’t do it alone” they’ll say. “He’s still just one man.” And they won’t be wrong.
    Next season is when the three of them will start to really impress, but unfortunately that’s when an injury or two comes into play. Still Miami will be more of a force for the next two or three seasons before Messi and Busquets finally hang it up. They will make the playoffs but making a deep run to a cup is beyond them batting young South American talent coming in year 3. And I’m not sure they can afford it.

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      Update: I expected Messi to be good. I was unprepared for him to raise the level of the whole team. It’s like he came on and said “let’s be good at passing now” and they were all “okay”, and then they did. Back line still suspect, but the attack was infinitely more dangerous. I still think he is underestimating the MLS travel, and will not be quite as good on the road, but I now think it’s possible that Miami makes the playoffs after all.
      BTW Union rep confirmed to me that partial plans will NOT include the Miami games. So I’m screwed if I don’t pony for the full season.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Agreed. Miami basically dribbled alone for 50 minutes, then switched to “soccer” mode. Weird.

  10. There will be one mis-timed tackle and MLS will become known as the hack league that crippled the greatest player of all time.

  11. I agree that it would be a bit of a disaster if Messi and Co. are flops. It would reinforce the reputation that the league just wants to throw money at aging stars without any regard for sporting merit. It’s not a league — just a circus. A WWE soccer show that organizes All-Star games and skills competitions and stops its league for a month for a competition with Liga MX. Not serious stuff.

    My gut tells me, however, that despite his age, Messi is absolutely going to embarrass some MLS backlines. He still very much has that ability. I think we’ll all be better off if he succeeds.

  12. santo bevacqua says:

    Thanks Andy
    Hazards of the game but sad

  13. Busquets alone brings Miami up several notches. There’s zero chance they don’t improve drastically. The interplay between Messi and Busquets is otherworldly. The distribution between midfield and frontline is now world class. I love the MLS and all but the chasm between Messi and his ilk and the average MLS talent is about to revealed in stark detail. It can only push the league to higher quality. Win win.

  14. Apple TV’s coverage has been embarrassingly, bush league bad all season and now with the most anticipated debut in MLS history we get no replay and only one angle of the Messi free kick that springboards him into the US soccer universe. My previously FREE local coverage was vastly superior to this horror show of sports production.

  15. The New ” It team”……. (Move over LAFC } Garber and Apple will do all in their power to make Miami the “It” team. Bend every salary cap regulation . Buy homes , boats and businesses and offer Apple, Addidas revenue sharing to all new Miami designated players.

    I hope it all backfires and Miami does not make the playoffs.

    • completely agree…..already getting preferential treatment with regard to fouls (he should have had 2 yellows against Orlanda), but got forbid if someone from another team sneezes on Messi…..they’ll be seeing a caution.

      When all is said and done, years from now the retrospective view will be that Messi did nothing to enhance the reputation or playing level of MLS.

  16. I think you’re making this too complicated. Having Messi is a level above having anyone else, since a) he’s not just a great player, he’s the GOAT; and b) he is still playing (and achieving) at an extremely high level. I mean he’s literally right off being the freakin’ World Cup MVP.

    Sure, a lot of people will just watch Miami games. But that’s short-term thinking. The real point is how many other players will now say, “Hey, y’know, if this league is good enough for Messi after winning a World Cup…” And THAT’S how the whole league gets seriously elevated. Basically, imagine every team in MLS has a Riqui Puig — a young stud, in his prime, who could play in a top Euro league but decides it would be fun to live in the US. That’s what Messi is going to get us.

  17. I’m hoping that what happens is that the people living in the us notice that mls exists because of all the Messi headlines and through that starts getting invested in their local team. That would be nice.

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