Major League Soccer dreamt of seeing the day a player like Lionel Messi followed the footsteps of David Beckham and Thierry Henry, plying his trade in front of an ever-growing North American market. We began to see hints publicly as early as January of 2018 — when MLS formally announced Inter Miami CF, through the Miami Beckham United investment group, as the league’s 25th franchise — that the Argentine World Cup winner may one day bring his talents to South Florida.
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As the league and Inter Miami prepare for what can only be described domestically as the soccer equivalent of Beatlemania sweeping through the United States and Canada, MLS commissioner Don Garber met with a group of media members near Fort Lauderdale beach where he discussed how they managed to bring arguably the greatest player of this generation here and how the landscape of the league could evolve over time as a result of his arrival.
Garber revealed that Jorge Mas promised him early on to accomplish two things as the team’s managing owner, to complete the Miami Freedom Park stadium project “against insurmountable odds” and land Argentina’s No. 10. They’re halfway to meeting those goals as Messi was introduced as part of “La PresentaSÍon” on Sunday at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, approximately 35 miles away from the stadium project in Miami, located near the Miami International Airport at what used to be the Melreese Country Club.
“What I love about Jorge Mas is that he’s ultimately one of the most optimistic, ambitious and energizing people I have ever met,” said Garber, who pointed out that the buzz surrounding Messi potentially landing in Miami began to pick up toward the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s season when it seemed as if he was not going to stick around in Paris.
Garber described the Mas family being “part of the conversation in ways that were very real” with Messi’s camp. It’s worth noting that Garber was in Qatar for the World Cup to promote the growth of MLS and Mas was in attendance at Lusail Stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup final in Qatar between Argentina and France — a pivotal moment in Messi’s career as he finally managed to win his first career World Cup title. That may have been one of the many seeds planted in the pursuit of Messi, but notably in late May the league strategically began to put its “unique” plans in motion to turn a dream into reality.
“He never lost hope and I will tell you that there were lots of ups and downs [with] every rumor of him showing up with this team, showing up with this market,” Garber said. “Jorge just had his head down – he and his brother joined at the hip – and just said, ‘hang tight, we’re going to get this done, we’re focused and just work with us and we’re going to bring it home.’ And he did.”
Garber says MLS was fortunate to be in a unique position as a single-entity league and with strong partnerships with sponsors — Adidas and Apple, most notably — to help step in and facilitate signing Messi.
“You don’t hear as much as you used to in the past about this unique structure that we have — this concept of being a single entity. Back in the day, that single entity had connotations of the league getting deeply involved in players and in coaching and the like, and that really was never the intent. The intent of [a single] entity was to have a partnership amongst owners so that you can take advantage of unique opportunities,” said Garber, who cited the recent TV rights deal struck with Apple where league games are available to stream globally in one place as a prime example.
“No other league today owns all of their media rights, because the local rights reside with the clubs and the national rights reside in a collective. We had the same situation, so we pushed those rights to the clubs. And as an entity we were able to say, now we’re going to take those rights back because we think that there’s a better idea, and I think that idea is representative of the future of media. That concept is unique to MLS because we can make those kinds of decisions.”
When Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, his partnership with the club and the league was so unique that some thought we would never see anything like it again. It’s only right that a Beckham-backed club is now in position to see this through.
It remains to be seen if the league repeats history and decides to pull out all the stops to land another major signing for a player with similar stature of Messi down the road. One thing is for sure, flexibility is important within the structure of the league, and the doors are never shut.
“I never thought that we would ever do what we did with David Beckham, and there’s probably only two players in the world that you would think in our lifetime you would do something like that, David Beckham and Messi. But life is a long time,” Garber said. “Who knows what this is going to look like 10 years from now. Who knows what the league will look like 10 years from now and its structure and its approach.”
As the dust settles from “La PresentaSÍon,” all eyes shift to Messi’s first practice and his debut game Friday night against Cruz Azul as part of the opening day of Leagues Cup action, a mini World Cup-style tournament pitting MLS teams against Liga MX teams. But before that, there’s the MLS All-Star Game in Washington D.C., where league owners will get together to discuss the current landscape of the league changing on a dime with the arrival of Messi. On the docket will be a presentation made by Todd Durbin, who oversees and manages the day-to-day operations of the player department, on ways the league could potentially tweak or simplify some of its roster structures.
“We are looking at ways that we can simplify our rules,” Garber said. “We realize as we broaden our audience that we are at the right time to try to make it easier for fans to really understand with more transparency what goes into our roster rules.
“Now those rules are in place because we’re strategically trying to ensure that our teams are signing players that ultimately will grow our fan base as opposed to necessarily having one team beating another, which in many ways when you’re thinking about the global landscape, is a zero-sum game.
“How do you make Major League Soccer more competitive? The fact that we had as a goal we want to be the leader of North America. I think we are certainly more competitive against the Mexican league and against the Mexican federation than any time before. That’s not by accident.
“It’s how we’ve thought about the U-22 rule, it’s how we reconfigured how we’re managing allocation money, it’s how we’ve been dealing differently with how we manage our homegrown players. All of those roster techniques are driven not just so we can be good on a given Saturday, but how our teams can be more competitive, and that continues to be a goal.”