The Verde Report: MLS Must Make Major Changes to Be Worthy of Lionel Messi

Time for the league to pull the training wheels off once and for all

Lionel Messi playing for Argentina at the 2022 FIFA World Cup
Lionel Messi playing for Argentina at the 2022 FIFA World Cup (photo by Hossein Zohrevand / Tasnim News Agency / CC BY 4.0)

By now you've heard, Lionel Messi is coming to Major League Soccer. In so many ways, that statement is still unfathomable. The greatest soccer player in history, just six months removed from winning the Golden Ball as the best player of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has chosen MLS – Inter Miami CF, to be specific – to stage the final flickers of the prime of his legendary career.

In many other ways, though, Messi to MLS was inevitable. Last year, when tech giant Apple committed $2.5 billion over 10 years for the right to broadcast 100% of MLS games on its Apple TV+ platform, it did so for the global rights, not just the domestic ones. It was a dead giveaway. In its current form, MLS has next to nothing to offer the international soccer fan, short of a handful of over-the-hill former stars competing for trophies that pale in comparison to the prestigious prizes of Europe or even South America. But with Messi, Apple will now have exclusive streaming rights to the most celebrated and in-demand athlete in the world. Clearly, that was always the plan.

Messi's arrival will instantly elevate MLS to levels of global relevance previously unheard of, providing an explosive shot of momentum and credibility both at home and abroad. But there is only so much one player can do for an entire league, even when that player is the GOAT. In order to maximize the long-term impact of Messi's presence and cement itself as a true player in the global soccer arena, MLS needs to make like a recent divorcé and take some time to focus on itself.

When David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 and became the first true global superstar to pick MLS, the league comprised just 13 teams and each club's highest-paid player earned just over $500,000 per year on average. Beckham changed all that, as his arrival was followed by an explosion of expansion teams and the introduction of the Designated Player Rule, which has since allowed MLS owners to shell out huge contracts for world-renowned players.

In the process, though, the league became obsessed with the concept of parity: artificially leveling the playing field so that every team has a chance to compete and no team is at risk of becoming dynastic. It's a nice thought on paper, but in practice has created a league without a sense of identity, where each week's results seem like the product of a random number generator. And in doing so, MLS's draconian, indecipherable roster rules – salary caps, TAM, GAM, Designated Players, etc. – have for years only served to constrict clubs from spending to their maximum, limiting the overall quality of players the league can recruit.

Thanks to the Apple TV+ contract, worth more than three times the total annual value of MLS's previous broadcast rights deals, there is more money in the league than ever before. With Messi's impending arrival, there has never been more interest. There will never come a better opportunity than now to reshape MLS for the better. Commissioner Don Garber and the league's pool of owners must pull the training wheels off once and for all and allow MLS to truly compete in the global soccer marketplace, or the league will never truly feel worthy of a player like Messi.

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Austin FC, The Verde Report, Lionel Messi, MLS, Major League Soccer, Don Garber, David Beckham, Designated Player Rule

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