Lionel Messi wave
REUTERS/Albert Gea

How Lionel Messi could transform MLS, and the clubs most likely to sign him | Andrew Wiebe

I hope David Beckham’s WhatsApp has been on fire.

I hope among the thirsty multitudes blowing up Lionel Messi’s representative’s inboxes, at least a handful of the texts, calls, emails and burofaxes — gotta respect the man’s preferred form of communication — are from MLS owners and executives.

I hope accountants and lawyers across the league are laying out short- and long-term budgets, examining contracts, projecting future revenue, getting creative with income streams and equity and figuring out how this could work, now or down the road.

I hope we’ll see Lionel Messi in MLS someday. I can’t say we deserve it. It’s Messi’s life and he’ll live it as he damn well pleases, in Barcelona, Manchester, Milan, Rosario, New York City or somewhere else entirely. I just hope his personal whims include MLS. I want him in this league, for my own enjoyment, for whichever supporters get to call him their own and for every single person who loves this game in North America.

Is it going to happen now? I’m not naïve. Almost certainly not. Paul “Buzzkill” Tenorio explained as much over at The Athletic. Messi wants to win another Champions League (and not the Concacaf variety ... hear me out Leo, you could make history there, too). The only hole in his resume can be filled in Qatar during the winter of 2022. The money it would take to bring him across the Atlantic wouldn’t just be unprecedented, it’d be in another stratosphere.

And yet, much of the same was said about David Beckham 13 years ago, and we know how that story played out. We can certainly imagine how Messi's arrival would change soccer in North America. We can imagine the international coverage of his every move. We can imagine the packed stadiums from coast to coast. We can imagine our feeds filled with his goals, assists and dribbles. We can imagine kids everywhere wearing Messi 10 kits. We can imagine the way domestic soccer might force its way into the cultural zeitgeist.

As I see it, there are two clear options for Messi, should he decide Major League Soccer is for him: New York City FC and Inter Miami CF.

In Beckham, Messi not only has a blueprint for an eventual MLS move, he has a potential partner. Further up the Eastern Seaboard, there are more blueprints, stadium plans that need a little push and a clear path from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to New York City. Both pitches follow the same timeline, in my mind at least.

The year is 2022. Austin FC is in its second season. Charlotte FC’s expansion season is rolling right along. Come January 2023, the league will grow to 30 teams as St. Louis and Sacramento enter the fold. COVID-19 is under control — wear your mask, please — and Americans and Canadians are desperate to experience the life they’ve missed for the past two years. Meanwhile, there’s a new television rights deal to be negotiated.

Messi is busy preparing for the World Cup, but he’s thinking about the final step in his greatest of all-time career as well. It’s time for someone to step up and to do everything possible to make the biggest signing in MLS history. It’s time to imagine how July 2023 will change Major League Soccer forever.

New York City FC

The mutual attraction was already obvious before a report last week made City Football group the prohibitive favorite to land Messi now and NYCFC a possible destination later.

Finances would not be an obstacle, besides the disputed clause in the Argentine's contract and making the pieces fit via Financial Fair Play. No biggie. Guardiola offers a soccer security blanket. The Premier League offers a new competitive challenge, and City’s squad gives Messi a framework to work within instead of being seeming the only framework around which Barcelona builds. Adding a first-ever Champions League triumph to Man City’s trophy case is the legacy play.

And, come the summer of 2023, this scenario offers a then-36-year-old Messi a simple, straightforward, drama-free transition across the Atlantic, where an entirely different kind of legacy is waiting to be written.

Two things are true about New York City FC: 1) they need a stadium of their own and 2) they need a jolt of publicity and on-field success to become a power player in the city’s sporting landscape. Think Messi could help with either of those things?

Imagine the urgency Messi’s arrival would add to the stadium process. Imagine a stadium opening in the Bronx with Messi (and friends) as the draw. Imagine the cultural capital the club could capture in a city that demands world class. Imagine, even at that age, the impact Messi would have on the field. Imagine if part of the contract was equity in the team, a la the Beckham clause. Imagine Messi as an MLS owner for the rest of his life.

If the reports are to be believed, CFG are already imagining such a scenario.

Inter Miami CF

It’ll take a little more creativity to see how it’d work for Inter Miami, but the pitch makes sense, even if it lacks the continuity of CFG.

If Messi wants advice on moving to MLS, the only phone that should be ringing is Beckham’s cell. He is the pioneer. He is his peer. He is the man who can explain the how, what and why from both a player and business perspective with complete credibility.

Use your imagination again. I know I’ve asked for an awful lot of that. Legacy matters to Beckham. He wouldn’t have gone to the Galaxy when he did if it didn’t. Imagine what bringing Messi to MLS and, more importantly, Inter Miami would mean to him personally. What it would mean to the club as it begins to write its own history. What it would mean to the city of Miami. What it would mean to the league Beckham put so much sweat equity into building.

Imagine the legacy that Jorge and Jose Mas would be leaving in their hometown by bringing the best player the world has ever seen to South Florida. Imagine if Messi not only opened a sparkling new stadium in Miami as the main attraction, but transitioned to ownership for the rest of his life. That’s a creative way to pay him and dangle another legacy play.

Imagine if Luis Suarez came first and scouted things on the ground. Inter have an open DP spot. Why not play two strikers? Let Suarez go where he wants to combine and link up with Rodolfo Pizarro, Blaise Matuidi and Matias Pellegrini. The Uruguayan is an assassin in the box, but he’s also one of the game’s best creators. And he’s Messi’s boy, another string to pull the ultimate target toward Miami.

Imagine if Messi signed a three-year deal with [fill in the blank European power] and came to Miami on a free.

Just imagine.