Messi ending his historic career in MLS has been a rumor for years. The 35-year-old Argentinian legend is showing the world he is still among the best while at the World Cup. Whether the rumors are true or not, it begs the question, is MLS ready for Messi? The answer lies further than just his play on the field.
If you follow MLS closely, or the sport in general, Messi has been rumored to go to MLS for a while now. During the World Cup, rumors spread that the deal for Messi to join Inter Miami is just about done. The deal would make Messi the highest-paid player in the league’s history.
Of course, nothing is set in stone and things can always change. However, it just makes sense. Messi joining David Beckham’s club as he takes the Beckham route of ending his career in the United States.
Messi is no usual retiring player. Is his career winding down and has his play declined a bit? Absolutely. However, as he is showing in Qatar, he is still a world-class icon. While MLS has certainly taken leaps forward in recent years, is the league really ready for him? Not just his skills but the presence he will bring into the stadiums.
Messi is Still World Class
Yes, Messi is 35 and at the back end of his legendary career. However, please show me a 25-year-old player in MLS that plays as Messi does. Let’s take a quick look at just a few records Messi holds.
He has the most all-time Ballon d’Or awards with 7. Including winning the award in 4 straight years. He owns the record for the most goals, assists, and trophies with a single club. Possibly the greatest of them all and something that won’t ever be topped, 91 goals scored in a calendar year. He is the GOAT.
Even if Messi doesn’t play as he used he is still miles ahead of what MLS defending has seen. Has his goal-scoring and stats decreased? Definitely. Playing with Mbappe and Neymar requires less of you. However, Messi has Argentina in the quarterfinals of the World Cup because no player can boss a field as he can. If he can still do it at the World Cup he will be able to do it in MLS.
All of this doesn’t mean Messi will come to MLS and Miami will go undefeated as he destroys the league. There are some elite defenses in MLS. The Philadelphia Union just posted the best defensive campaign in MLS history. However, there are some other clubs that will have no idea how to contain him.
Another factor is there are 11 players on the field for a team. Messi won’t be able to do it by himself (most of the time). Miami needs to add players that will benefit from Messi’s play. It won’t take superstars but there is no reason to crown Miami MLS Cup champions when/if Messi does come over.
MLS defending likely is not ready for Messi. However, there is no reason to give any team Messi joins the championship. Although, any team he is on should be considered a favorite.
The league will adapt to his playstyle and will continue to take leaps forward thanks to his presence.
More Concerning, is MLS Ready for the Stadium Presence?
The question if MLS is ready for Messi is mostly important when it comes to the safety of the players and the fans.
Compare Messi to some notable United States-based athletes and their followings. LeBron James is among the biggest. He has 128 million followers on Instagram. Leo Messi has 384 million. While LeBron is known on a worldwide level, he is really only an icon in North America. That is because basketball isn’t the world’s sport. Yes, there are leagues all over the world but it is an American thing.
Whether Americans have come around to it or not, Soccer (it is called soccer) is the World’s sport. This means Messi is an icon recognized around the entire world. Not just in specific areas. Hundreds of millions of people look up to him.
The presence he will bring to MLS stadiums is going to be unlike what the league has seen before. The league will need to be prepared.
How Different Can the Stands Be?
How much of a change could Messi bring to the average attendees of MLS games? The answer is probably surprising and it can be found at the international level.
Take a few things into account. First, when the USMNT host World Cup Qualifying, do they choose highly populated areas? No, they do not. They play in Ohio or Minnesota in February when it is below 0. This is because these are the only areas the US have a true home-field advantage. When they play in highly populated and diverse cities, the USMNT is lucky to be 50/50 in crowd support.
Take this to the league level, the results are the same. For this example, let’s use the Philadelphia Union in the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final in Subaru Park against Club America.
The Union post some of the best home numbers in the league. They don’t have the highest capacity, however, in recent years the stands have been full. The home-field advantage is what helped them go undefeated at home in 2022.
When the Union played Club America, Club America fans represented about 75% of the stadium. As someone who has gone to almost every Union home game for the last few years, I had never seen anything like it.
The atmosphere was amazing. Club America’s fans put on a show and it was fun to watch. However, it shows that the support for MLS is nowhere near the support for Liga MX or international competition. Even here in the US.
It is a guarantee that any stadium Messi comes to will be fully sold out. Unfortunately, a lot of them will be there not to support an MLS team.
MLS Needs to Be Prepared for the Security Issue
While MLS hasn’t had a widespread security issue, the league needs to be prepared for his arrival. The normal security detail for a game between the Union and FC Cincy is not going to cut it.
The security team the MLS had at MLS Cup is going to need to be present at every game Messi is at. Security lined the entire field in the Banc of California stadium.
This isn’t because Messi is going to bring unsafe or dangerous fans around. It is because people are going to try and rush the field for a photo with the GOAT.
It has happened in every league in the world and it will happen here too. However, the league needs to be mindful and put an end to it before it gets going.
If someone doesn’t think it is an issue, I’ll circle back to the Union-Club America game. After the 90th-minute numerous fans ran onto the pitch looking for pictures with players. It creates a dangerous situation for players, fans, and security personnel. MLS and the teams cannot be wary of overspending on security on these games.
The Issue is Deeper than Pitch Invaders
Pitch invaders are everywhere and someone will always slip past security. However, the issue is deeper than that. A lot of MLS stadiums are fairly small in comparison. While teams like Atlanta and Seatle play in NFL stadiums, most stadiums are just a lower bowl of seats.
While I can’t speak for all MLS stadiums, I can speak for the Union’s Subaru Park. The player’s benches are practically in the stands with the fans. Nothing but a 2-foot concrete wall separating them. I am sure a high-profile player like Messi won’t feel the safest or enjoy being an arm’s length away from fans.
Stadiums may have to make accommodations to ensure the safety of all the players and the fans.
MLS Needs to Continue to Grow
Whether MLS is really ready and prepared for Messi is debatable. We won’t know until he gets here. However, the fact is no matter what the league needs to continue to grow. So whether MLS is ready or not, Messi eventually coming here will be a win in the long run.
Let us just hope the league takes his presence seriously.
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