Pele with the New York Cosmos in 1975.
David Beckham with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007.
Lionel Messi with InterMiami in (perhaps) 2023.
When people think of key moments in North American soccer – outside of World Cup years – when awareness for the sport really grew, these are the moments that arise most often.
The cynical will say Messi’s arrival will not really signal much change. The great Pele was past his prime, as was Beckham (some say), when pro soccer in the U.S. came calling with big bucks and promotional opportunities. While each moved the proverbial ball up the soccer pitch, neither changed the massive tide to move pro soccer into the lexicon of the “Big Four” in the States…the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. MLS has grown exponentially, and the awareness and development of soccer overall…for both men and women…is lightyears ahead of where it was in 2007 when Becks arrived in L.A., but this can, and should be different.
Why is the arrival of Messi onto the US Soccer scene different from his international predecessors?
It really ties to the work we do in football with elite clubs around the world, including with a growing number of MLS clubs like the Columbus Crew, the Portland Timber, the Chicago Fire and even InterMiami FC. Unlike 2007, or even 2015 or 2017, performance technology and advanced analytics (which have taken us way beyond legacy Athlete Management Systems and EMR’s) in addition to youth development programs – have been and are growing within MLS and US Soccer and are becoming world class. We see that in the growing number of young American athletes who are now part of the most elite clubs on the planet, and in the continued development of the US National teams on every level as they rise in competition across the board on the global stage. Similarly, the level of play, the facilities and the infrastructure around MLS is moving up very quickly, as clubs invest in data, in health and wellness, and in elite global training facilities and academies like never before.
Our work has given us great insight into how these programs are being built and implemented. Just last month we announced a partnership with the Columbus Crew which will be the standard by which all MLS clubs will be judged in terms of academy and player development going forward, and more announcements with other clubs, all with their own customized approach will be following.
And as far as Messi and InterMiami goes, the club, with Beckham in its ownership group, realizes that this commitment to bring a star who still has a great deal of runway for success (let’s not forget he just led Argentina to the World Cup and turned down offers from other elite clubs to join Miami and MLS, so it wasn’t like this was the only large offer he and his team had) will fail if it’s just about him and the box office and viewership draw he will have. It cannot just be for show for the short term. We have been working with InterMiami on their player development protocols and training programs for quite a while now, and although it takes time to see success, we have had a good look into why this is not just a one and done move to sell kits and sponsors and tickets. This is a long term strategy to help expose MLS to best in class, with the appropriate support around a global superstar to make everyone else rise and grow as a team.
Foundation has been laid. The US is primed for change.
I liken it in some ways to Aaron Rodgers joining the New York Jets of the NFL. An athlete with an amazing track record at the club level in LaLiga and on a global stage now joining an organization who has seeded the path with young talent and infrastructure, and who can now take advantage of that seeding by having talent show the others in the organization the path forward.
Will it work? There is no way to predict for sure. Soccer is a team game with many parts working together as one, and InterMiami, and its young team, will now have the eyes, and the pressure of the world on them. However the chance for this being a success to grow MLS on a global scale, and showcase the talent not just of Messi but of his mates, has a better chance of success than at any point before because the foundation that has been laid in training, in athlete development, in health and wellness, and in world class staff, is there like never before.
Like most soccer fans, we will be watching closely how this plays out, and we are proud to have a growing presence in and around soccer in America with our partnerships, including with InterMiami, to help make this and the sport overall a success at the professional level.
Another grand experiment in professional soccer comes to the shores of America. This one may actually help turn the tide, and ride a global wave of growth, longer and stronger than any other.