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Will Lionel Messi finally make the U.S. a soccer nation?

Lionel Messi celebrates the game-winning goal after defeating Cruz Azul on Friday.
Mike Ehrmann
/
Getty Images
Lionel Messi celebrates the game-winning goal after defeating Cruz Azul on Friday.

This story is part of NPR's Main Character of the Day series, where we spotlight the people and things worth talking about — and the stories behind them.


After a move to Inter Miami, the world's biggest soccer star has more than a new team to take on — he's being counted on to popularize Major League Soccer too.

Who is he? Some say he's the GOAT, others the greatest soccer player of his generation. Perhaps most notoriously, he's a recent World Cup champion.

  • Lionel Messi is the 36-year-old Argentine soccer star that recently chose to leave the European leagues and join the American Major League Soccer team, Inter Miami.
  • The move drew global attention for several reasons, including his decline of a reportedly monstrous $1.6 billion contract from Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal, as well as his shift from the prestigious European leagues.
  • What's the big deal? Well, Americans love their sports, and more importantly, they love being good at them. But is the nation ready to embrace soccer into the fold of national pastimes like baseball, basketball and the NFL?

  • The MLS represents soccer at the highest level in the United States, and is only just about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. While the MLS has covered plenty of ground in those decades and grown in popularity, it still trails behind the major European leagues in terms of fans and clout. By a lot.
  • And as history has shown, the presence of a major superstar can revitalize interest. David Beckham's stint for L.A. Galaxy in the mid 2000s injected plenty of life into the league, and more importantly, attendance to stadiums.
  • So, as the MLS grows and Messi starts his era in the U.S., the question arises: can his star power take the league to the next level?

  • Want the full in-depth analysis? Listen to the Consider This episode by clicking the play button at the top of the page.


    What are people saying? Don Garber, the commissioner of the MLS since 1999, spoke with NPR's Scott Detrow on what comes next.

    On the early, uncertain days of the MLS:

    The league launched after the 1994 World Cup with great fanfare. The World Cup was very successful in the United States. And then we went through a period in the early 2000s ... where we were thinking of shutting the league down.

    And then we got a call that maybe David Beckham would like to come to Los Angeles.

    And at that time, it was just spectacular. And the crowds were enormous. If not for David, there's no Messi. And frankly, I would say, if not for David coming here in 2007, I'm not sure the league would be on the trajectory that we have been on.

    On the most important next steps for MLS to compare with the big European leagues and other major domestic sports:

    It really is [about] being part of the global conversation of international football. At the end of the day, we're competing against big, established soccer football leagues that have enormous reach and fan bases that have a hundred years of history, that have got generational support. And that's the marketplace. That's the audience, particularly with a global media partner, that we're very focused on.

    And on closing that gap:

    We're still in the earliest days of MLS, right? So we look at, really, what the future opportunity is. And if you think about things like our development programs, our homegrown player systems, our transfers that continue to grow in terms of our sales of international players — all of them are beginning to be part of the global conversation. And eventually, being part of that family, ultimately, is going to lead to the kinds of opportunities like the Lionel Messi opportunity.

    So, what now?

  • Messi's debut with Inter Miami was last Friday against Mexico's Cruz Azul, where he scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time.
  • He will earn a reported $60 million a year and is also reportedly set to get a cut in revenue from new subscribers to Apple TV's MLS Season Pass.
  • Garber thinks that part of Messi's long-term success requires him to be "inculcated into the culture of being in America." The recent viral posts of him shopping at a South Florida grocery store might be part of that process.
  • Learn More:

  • A Major League Soccer trainer was fired for flashing the 'OK' hand sign in a photo
  • The Women's World Cup expanded to 32 teams this year. Has the quality suffered?
  • The U.S. defeats Vietnam 3-0 to open its 2023 Women's World Cup
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
    Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
    Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.