Paris Saint-Germain’s most ardent supporters had had enough.
Their club was fresh off its latest epic UEFA Champions League collapse, last Wednesday’s stunning Round of 16 comeback loss to Real Madrid, ensuring another year without the prize that has become its single-minded obsession since Qatar Sports Investments’ acquisition of PSG more than a decade ago.
And so the ultras used Sunday’s Ligue 1 match vs. Bordeaux to make their feelings known, booing stars Lionel Messi and Neymar repeatedly at Parc des Princes, even after the latter scored the second goal in a 3-0 win that further consolidates their gaping 15-point lead atop the domestic standings.
As if to drive home the point, a day later graffiti insulting club leadership was discovered scrawled across walls at the stadium and training ground, while prominent television pundits assailed the duo as “mercenaries” and “frauds.”
Safe to say this is nowhere near where PSG’s multi-billion-dollar Gallic galacticos project was supposed to be by this point: repeated pratfalls and gut punches in Europe’s top competition despite one star-studded signing spree after another; yet another season winding down with more questions than answers.
It’s surely not what Messi (age 34) and Neymar (age 30) had in mind, either, especially as they move towards the autumn of their careers, with another legacy-defining World Cup looming in November and their prospects of participating in the 2026 edition an open question, at best.
They remain two of the biggest names in world soccer, adored around the globe and, even at their current low ebb, linked to Europe’s biggest clubs in the transfer gossip columns. Should they decide their time in Paris is up, they’ll have a wealth of options for their next move, although an insistence on maintaining their current stratospheric wages – reportedly in the vicinity of $40 million a year – inevitably curtails that list.
MLS one day?
This brings us to Major League Soccer, which, yes, is definitely part of this matrix.
That’s not mere optimism or delusion talking: Both players have expressed a desire to experience soccer and life in North America.
Notably, The Athletic has reported in detail about Messi’s father Jorge, who is centrally involved in his business and footballing decisions, attending last year’s Gold Cup final in Las Vegas. There he is said to have met with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Mayor Carolyn Goodman, among others, as that city’s expansion hopes accelerated.
Being a jovial sort more prone to cutting up on camera than his Argentine teammate, Neymar’s public signals have at times been interpreted as unserious. But the Brazilian has nonetheless repeatedly declared his intention to move Stateside, including in conversations with former MLS great and Inter Miami CF part-owner David Beckham as recently as a few weeks ago.
Garber, too, has addressed these possibilities. He was asked about it during a media availability last month, and his response could be classified as part welcome, part warning to superstars pondering the notoriously demanding league for the back half of their professional journeys.
“Anybody could sign Messi today and pay him what they want to pay him as a Designated Player, should Lionel decide that he wants to play in Major League Soccer. And that's the same for Neymar or for any other player,” said Garber. “What's been happening, and this has been a stated focus for the league, is we want our story to be about young players who are coming here at the earliest stages in their career or in the prime of their careers and making our league their league of choice. You've seen a dramatic shift from where we were to where we are today.
“If they're not here to come and play and be a great contributor to their club and to our league and to respect the league and its fans, then we don't want them in Major League Soccer. We don't need to bring in a big-name player at the end of their career because they've decided they'd like to retire in MLS.”
In light of the present realities contained therein, what factors must coincide in order for these icons to arrive on these shores? Here are three criteria as I see them.
There’s a certain unavoidable physical, fiscal and organizational geography that will limit the landing spots for two global celebrities who’ve spent the bulk of their professional lives in Barcelona and Paris.
To be blunt: Where would they agree to live, which clubs would have the capacity and desire to pay them what would quite likely be MLS record-breaking wages, and provide them with all the ancillary conditions that are necessary in Messi and Neymar’s rarified air?
Almost anything is possible in soccer – that’s why we love this game – so we have to allow for the possibility of an outsider stunning us with their intent, somewhat akin to what Toronto FC have pulled off a few times in their existence. But for me, the most likely clutch of MLS clubs in position to pull this off consists of, in rough order of likelihood: Miami, the Los Angeles clubs, the possible expansion project in Las Vegas, New York City FC and Seattle Sounders FC.
We all know how much top players love the climate and lifestyle on offer in south Florida and southern California, and the MLS owners there have the means and ambition to make a play like this. New York also retains its own unique allure, and any of these markets are large enough to support side projects in marketing, media and show business.
Vegas checks plenty of these boxes, too, and would offer the additional carrot of building something entirely new from scratch, a no-ceilings expansion adventure much like what Atlanta United enticed Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron & Co. with. Well, OK, at least one ceiling: Garber has said that a soccer-specific stadium there would be a domed, climate-controlled facility, sidestepping worries about them melting in the desert heat.
As for Seattle? The Rave Green don’t exactly need a Messi or Neymar, but if they wanted one, they have the means and an established tradition of success and relevance with which to make a compelling pitch.
Here’s probably the most influential factor in a potential arrival, as well as the most difficult one to control.
Older heads will remember that Beckham’s paradigm-shifting arrival was brewed in no small part by the LA Galaxy making a smart approach to the Englishman at probably the perfect time, just when he was experiencing the heaviest difficulties of his stint at Real Madrid and open to out-of-the-box ideas for his next move. Similarly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was lured to LA full of desire to prove he wasn’t a spent force after his serious knee injury with Manchester United, while also pushing his own inimitable brand further into the mainstream.
There’s a financial component to that. No one here is going to cough up $40 mil a season, but with recent deals for Ibra, Chicharito, Lorenzo Insigne and others nudging the league’s top-end salaries steadily northward, the megastars can reasonably expect to push that into the low eight figures per annum, with ample opportunities for ancillary income from sponsorships and the like.
It’s not inconceivable that the vibes could sour thoroughly enough in Paris for either Messi or Neymar to push forward their MLS timetable. This summer’s transfer window (July 7-Aug. 4) probably arrives too soon, but the winter World Cup in Qatar throws an unconventional spanner into the works. Would the end of that tournament provide a natural jumping-off point for exploring new pastures?
The duo’s continued frustrations in the Champions League look like another key influence. Neither have won Europe’s top club honor since they did so together with FC Barcelona in 2015, and the intensity of their desire to change that will have a massive hand in determining their next moves.
As Garber emphasized, as much as players on this level may move the proverbial needle, they must arrive with the right mindset and have the right environment waiting for them. Beckham’s first year or so with the Galaxy wasn’t rosy, as it amplified the problems at an already-unstable moment in the club’s existence; neither he nor the team as a whole prospered until Bruce Arena arrived to quiet the chaos.
From the locker room to the boardroom to the supporters’ sections, everyone will have to be pulling in the same direction, or at least be inspired by the star’s presence and leadership. In today’s MLS, that also means guiding and elevating younger colleagues on the roster, and helping speed along the league’s evolution into a launchpad for rising talent.
“There have been no shortage of players towards the end of their career that have been great MLS players, and David Beckham is one of the great examples of that,” said Garber last month. “I can't imagine what Major League Soccer would be without players like that. But you also think about Josef Martinez, and you think about Almiron and you think about some of the players that have come in recently, they are what is making Major League Soccer the league it is today.
“It's the transfers out and it's the transfers in, and that creates something that ultimately is going to be attractive to our fans and I think earn the respect of our media and those who follow the league.”
And that leads on to a less-tangible, but nonetheless powerful attraction on offer here: The chance to be a player first and tabloid fodder a distant second, to focus more on the pitch and live a quieter life away from it. Messi’s Argentina teammate Gonzalo Higuain spoke vividly of this when he arrived at Inter Miami.
Lamenting the vicious criticism he suffered in Europe, Higuain said players in those environments are treated like plastic bottles of soda: “They pour it out, pour it out, pour it out, and then when there's no more Coca-Cola, what do you do with it? You crush it, stamp on it, and throw it away,” he told ESPN's Fernando Palomo. “They squeeze you to death, and that's why I wanted to get outside of that bubble a bit.”
Speaking to CBS Sports’ Que Golazo podcast, Higuain said he “wanted to come here with the intention of being happy to play again, and I think Inter Miami gave me everything I needed. Coming here to this league gives me that feeling again, back when I was a kid enjoying playing, where in Europe I think that left me for many different reasons.”
More than beachfront mansions or zeros on the bank account balance, that may well be what an MLS move boils down for Messi and Neymar after many draining years under a microscope.
The club that can make that case most movingly and persuasively stands to gain another epochal arrival in the story of a league that is still being written.