Will Lionel Messi come to MLS? Iniami everyone has an opini

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida looks like it was designed by an eight-year-old on the back of a napkin. The locals here call the building the guitar hotel, and its easy to understand why it is shaped, quite simply, like a massive electric guitar.

Wander through the place on a Saturday night and youll hit sensory overload in a matter of minutes. There is a cacophony of noise: crying children, yapping adults and the continuous drone of a thousand slot machines.

We havent come to the guitar hotel to bathe in second-hand smoke and lose our life savings. Weve come here in search of something even worse for our health: the Messi burger.

Several months before the 2022 World Cup,Lionel Messipartnered with the Hard Rock Cafe to produce a line of merchandise and a hamburger that would appear on Hard Rock menus everywhere. The deal was only supposed to be a limited engagement. Then Messi won his firstWorld Cupand became immortalized as perhaps soccers greatest-ever player. The partnership was extended, and the food item enhanced.

Theres no need to dive into the specifics of the sandwich, but it is about what youd expect out of a $20 hamburger at a multinational concept restaurant: somehow filling and unsatisfying all at once.

Nevertheless, our server informs us that the Messi burger is the restaurants most popular item. A quick scan of the dining room tells us thats more than a sales pitch Messi burgers are being eaten in every corner of the place. A few tables over, we see a party of five, and every single patron has a Messi burger in front of them.

Since almost the moment the teams founding was announced,MLSsideInter Miamihas been linked to Messi. Everyone at the table of Messi burgers is keenly aware of this. The five are part of Miamis sizable contingent of Argentine immigrants, and all have their own opinions about the players future.

One of those diners is Germn, a 52-year-old who made the trip to Qatar this past winter to see Messi play in the World Cup final. His excitement is palpable. He has a friend close to Messis camp, he says, who tells him the club and player are close to an agreement. Its the sort of statement that hardly seems believable, but here at this table, in this rapid-fire conversation over a half-dozen Messi burgers, it feels right.

If you speak to the people who are actually close to Messi, or to sources close to Inter Miami itself, youll get wildly different viewpoints spoken with equal amounts of passion. One source, who was granted anonymity to protect his relationships with Inter Miami, toldThe Athleticlast week that a deal with Miami was all but done, with Messi being promised a small ownership stake in the MLS club. Another bristled at the idea that Messi would ever come to the United States, suggesting he still wants to play at the highest level.

In the end, the decision lies with Messi.

It is not an easy one. Does he remain at PSG, at the highest possible level? Does he choose to return to Argentina, to a glorious homecoming at his hometown Newells Old Boys in Rosario?Does he imitate his generational rivalCristiano Ronaldoand take a Middle Eastern payday?

Or, does he come to the U.S. in search of adventure?

Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville has dealt with his share of superstars as an assistant coach at Manchester United and as head coach of the English national womens team. Even at Miami, an MLS club still in its infancy, Neville was handed a squad that included former Real Madrid greatGonzalo Higuainand France World Cup winnerBlaise Matuidi.

But Messi? In a way, managing the Argentine great and the circus that would surround him would be Nevilles greatest-ever challenge. Inter Miamis reality would change entirely.

Things will be different, Neville says. The trees might have to be bigger (around the training ground). The security might have to be tighter. The walk the players have today over to that stadium, that might have to be different. The travel might be different. The hotels we stay in might have to be different. But really that might be what were aspiring to be like anyway. Its exciting, but I think itd be a massive challenge.

Neville is sitting at his desk on the upper floor of Inter Miamis training ground, located just to the north of DRV PNK stadium, Inter Miamis temporary home. The facility isnt located in Miami proper, but rather in a somewhat unglamorous stretch of nearby Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by tire shops, a roofing supply company and a used car dealership. But even here, the wealth that defines so much of the Miami area is inescapable. Look out the large, glass windows of Nevilles office and youll see the other thing that borders the training facility: the local executive airport, where the citys wealthiest residents park their private jets.

More than any other city in the United States, Miami has becomea destination for global footballers, particularly South Americans. Messi himself owns property in the city and has visited frequently. Argentinas federation is building a training facility in the area. Owners and administrators at Inter Miami are very aware of all of this, and feel the city is a very strong recruiting tool.

When (players) land in Ft. Lauderdale, says Neville, or Miami, theres places we can take them that will probably guarantee that they or their family will want to come to Miami. Whether theyve got a wife and kids or whether theyre single. So thats our biggest selling point.

Neville is thoughtful and careful when he talks about the clubs links to Messi. You get the feeling that many at the club would rather not discuss the potential deal at all, but not speaking about this particular player is simply not an option. On the very day David Beckham announced the franchise, Messireached out on social mediato congratulate him and stoked the flames of a potential move. Maybe in a few years, Messi said, you can give me a call.

At the time, Messi was a Barcelona player and it seemed as though hed retire as one. But after an acrimonious breakup, he left for Paris Saint-Germain.

Beckham himself was dealing with his own struggles at the time, navigating the harsh realities of trying to get a stadium deal done amidst widespread backlash from locals. Even after getting that deal over the line (Miami is expected to move into a new, downtown stadium in 2025), the waters have remained rough for Inter Miami. They werepenalized by MLSfor flagrantly violating MLS roster rules and struggled to compete in their opening two seasons. The club was always intended to be one of MLS few truly glamorous clubs, but it has lacked some of that luster playing in a temporary stadium outside of Miami proper. In 2022 Inter Miami ranked last in the 28-team league in attendance.

Those are all short-term problems that would be solved by a better venue and a more competitive roster (though the club did make the playoffs in 2022). At its core, Miami still feels like one of Major League Soccers most promising franchises. The club is owned by a pair of billionaires (Jorge and Jose Mas) and Beckham, maybe the biggest celebrity footballer in the history of the game. The ceiling for Inter Miami is higher than it is for clubs in smaller markets.

Beckham knows a thing or two about the effects a single star player can have on MLS. When he arrived at theLA Galaxyin 2007, the league was growing but still struggling for relevance. More than any other player in the leagues history, Beckham changed the profile of MLS and how it does business. He ushered in the era of the designated player an MLS roster classification that allowed its teams to spend over their allotted salary budget on up to three high-profile stars.

The league has added 16 franchises since Beckhams arrival and continues to add rules that increase overall spending on players. However, it has not yet earned the global respect it so badly wants and needs. Messi would certainly push things in that direction.

Yet in a vacuum, the idea of Messi playing for an MLS club feels farcical. The league has hosted its share of superstars Beckham, Zlatan, Drogba and the like. But Messi? Just months removed from World Cup glory? Playing in Inter Miamis stopgap stadium, in Fort Lauderdale? As big as those other players were, Messis signing would dwarf all of them, and be far more surprising.

I think this would be probably the biggest signing in history, says Neville. I cant think of another star of that magnitude to come from a major footballing country to this place. This is maybe similar (to Beckhams arrival), but maybe even bigger. I think youre talking about one of the greatest footballers of all time. When you talk about Miami, wehaveto be in for players like that, you know?

Down the hall from Neville, Inter Miami sporting director Chris Henderson is similarly bullish. Henderson represented the U.S. at a World Cup and had a distinguished playing career in MLS. By the time he arrived in Miami in early 2021, hed carved out his place as one of the more respected front-office figures in the league, a capable navigator of MLS web of roster rules. He speaks of Messis potential signing in the same business speak hed use to talk about a college draft pick: Does the player fit the way Miami plays? What about the clubs philosophy?

But even Henderson understands the realities of incorporating Messi into Miamis roster. Unlike other destinations, Miami would need to maneuver around a soft salary budget in order to add Messi. Just last week MLS commissioner Don Garber wassurprisingly candidabout the pursuit, suggesting the league and Inter Miami would have to think outside the box to craft a deal for him. Some say Messi will be offered a piece of Inter Miami itself, while others say Miami could cut him in on some of the real estate surrounding their new stadium.

Whats the knock-on effect on the rest of our roster? Henderson asks, hypothetically. What moves do we have to make? I mean, you really have to look two windows ahead in all of this. And as youre signing players, youre still signing players thinking, Okay, what if this happens? What if these two come? What if?

One thing that feels beyond question to Henderson is Messis potential impact.

He would change sports here, said Henderson. Every stadium we went to, it would just be the biggest thing in the city at that time. It would just be amazing for our league. It would be like Michael Jordan, just would be the biggest thing imaginable.

MLS has to make its own considerations. Like Beckham before him, Messis deal might change the calculus of every big-name signing from here on out. If Messi gets 5% of Inter Miami, a team that could potentially be worth over $1 billion when it moves into its new stadium, youd have to think that other players who approach his profile will want a similar deal if and when they come to MLS.

Theres no precedent for any of this, but then again, MLS has always been fairly good at making it up as time moves along.

In the early morning hours of March 2, shortly before 3 a.m., two armed men on a motorcycle stopped in front of a supermarket in Rosario, Argentina and opened fire. It was the latest instance of organized crime and gangland violence, which has led to over 50 homicides in the city this year. Rosario, the birthplace of Messi and where his parents and in-laws still reside, is currently Argentinas most violent city. According toClarn in Argentina, there were over 270 homicides in Rosario in 2022, a new record.

For locals, the news about fourteen bullets ripping through an empty supermarket in Rosario wasnt a random shooting. The shooters target, Supermercado nico, is owned and operated by the family of Antonela Roccuzzo, Messis wife.

The Associated Press reported that the gunman left a sinister note which read Messi, were waiting for you. Javkin is also a drug trafficker, he wont protect you.

That last line was a reference to Pablo Javkin, Rosarios mayor, who immediately condemned the attack and said that Rosario is a laboratory for criminal activity. He also pointed the finger at local law enforcement for failing to protect the city.

Its clear that causing harm in Rosario is easy to do and that Rosario doesnt have any damn help at all, Javkin said after the incident.

The shooting quickly became world news while simultaneously causing a political controversy in Argentina. When the nations defense minister Anbal Fernndez told reporters after the shooting that the narcos have won, it painted a ugly picture of the instability in one of Argentinas most fabled football cities.

Rosario is home to Newells Old Boys and Rosario Central two fierce rivals with rich histories who divide the citys football loyalties. Newells home ground is named after legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa, with an upper tier of the stadium dedicated to Gerardo Tata Martino, who starred as a player for the club and led Newells to a league championship as a manager in 2013. Rosario Central can claim World Cup winners Mario Alberto Kempes andngel Di Mariaas club legends, among others.

Messi, however, is far and away Rosarios most famous son. He joined Newells as a six-year-old in 1994, dazzling local crowds with hundreds of goals and silky dribbling until he departed for Barcelona five years later. Messi has never shied from talking about a romantic return to his boyhood club.

Even as time has passed, my desire to (play for Newells) remains intact, MessitoldArgentinas Sportia shortly before the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Ive always said that Id love to play for Newells. Its something that I still have left to do.

During a recent interview with Brazilian outlet UOL, Messis former international teammate and close friend Sergio Kun Aguero swung the pendulum in Newells favor.

Hes seriously considering the possibility of playing for Newells, Aguero revealed. Maxi Rodrguez, a former Argentina World Cup hero who retired with Newells in 2021, was on hand for the interview and quickly intervened.

Kun cant stay quiet, Rodrguez said. Well see. Its difficult to talk about this because it turns into a giant rumor. Lets wait and see what happens.

Before the supermarket shooting, Messis Newells return wasnt entirely implausible. After leading Argentina to a Copa Amrica title in 2021, Messi was finally hailed as a heroafter years of disappointment with the national team.Argentinas dramatic triumph at the World Cup in Qatar further elevated Messi to legend status. He had finally connected with the people of Argentina. So why wouldnt Messi want to finish his career in his country?

This latest act of violence, however, may have prevented that from happening.

This doesnt only affect Leos return. It affects everyone, said Newells manager Gabriel Heinze after the shooting. Theres no doubt that this distances Leo (from Newells) and anyone else.

Ray Hudson is no stranger to the area around Inter Miamis DRV PNK stadium, which sits about a mile or so from his home in Fort Lauderdale. In the 1970s, Hudson patrolled the midfield at Lockhart Stadium, the venue that was bulldozed to make way for Inter Miamis current home. He had a front-row seat to American soccers biggest-ever boom, the delirium surrounding the arrival of Pel to the North American Soccer League in the mid-70s. He witnessed the flood of other luminaries that Pel attracted stateside:Johan Cruyff,George Best,Gerd Mllerand more.

Hudson is also closely tied to Messi in his current career as a broadcaster. In the U.S., so many of Messis goals were accompanied by Hudsons trademark commentary, that rapid-fire banter laced with similes and metaphors. Say the word magisterial in the U.S. and even many non-soccer fans know exactly who and what youre talking about.

While its tempting to compare Messis potential arrival to that of Pels, the Braziliansimpact on club soccer in Americawas seismic mostly in the short term. His presence on the New York Cosmos for three years pushed the sport of soccer into the mainstream in the United States at a time when few gave it any thought, but a few years after his departure the entire NASL collapsed.

To Hudson, Messis potential arrival would be the biggest event in the history of the American game, and far more lasting.

This would be the biggest bang of football in this country, ever, says Hudson. The business element of what David Beckham did was enormous. That was a quantum leap for the league. We all recognize that. But this is a footballers footballer, you know? This isnt just Gareth Bale, (Steven) Gerrard, Lampard. Even when genuine geniuses have come here, like Thierry Henry and Zlatan, it really hasnt taken that massive leap. This will be the quantum leap in all shapes and forms for anybody thats followed the game.

This does not mean Hudson shares Inter Miamis confidence that theyll land Messis signature.

Within the last year he won the World Cup at 35 years old, and hes going to come here? Hudson asks. Its Wizard of Oz stuff. It would be like the Mozart of our game. The Shakespeare of the arts arriving in Major League Soccer, and at his absolute peak as well. At his absolute peak How could this possibly come about? What attraction is there for him? There are very, very good players playing within the league, but hes playing with Mbapp now. Hes playing with fing Mbapp and Sergio Ramos.

Historically, famous footballers have come to the United States in large part to escape the spotlight. Best cruised around Los Angeles and Florida in an open-topped Jeep and was barely recognized. Cruyff rode his bicycle from Georgetown in D.C. to RFK Stadium, a nice escape from his life in Barcelona. Even Henrytook the trainto Red Bull Arena for a game at least once.

Thats not an option for Messi, who at this point is one of the most recognizable humans on earth. During a recent Miami visit, every movement he made in the city was tracked by international media, and a massive crowd swarmed him at every opportunity. Hudson describes it asBeatlemania all over again, but in reality, Messis permanent arrival would be even bigger.

For now, Hudson will continue to try and find new ways to describe Messis brilliance remotely. Hell be on the call in the U.S. for PSGsChampions Leagueappearance this week against Bayern Munich, as Messi seeks to engineer a little more magic.

Im going to be looking at Messi on the ball and thinking Theres no fing way that he would be (in MLS), he says.

Its a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Miami Beach. The brunch crowd has descended upon the trendier eateries around town, but the Buenos Aires Bakery & Cafe has plenty of tables open. Were in Little Buenos Aires, where an ever-growing community of Argentine expats have made Miami home for over 20 years.

The locals here are enjoying Argentine delicacies like empanadas,facturas(an Argentine pastry), and a wide array of sandwiches and pizzas while they watch PSG defeat Lille 4-3. Messis clever free kick in stoppage time proves to be the decisive moment of the match.

On the outdoor patio, five grizzled old Argentine men quietly sip their lattes. Alberto, Diego, Jorge and two gentlemen named Cristin are deep in conversation when we approach their table and ask them where Messis career will take him next.

Hell stay at PSG, Alberto says, repeatedly.

Ill bet you $5,000 that hell play one season with Newells, belts out one of the Cristins, a burly fellow with tanned skin and thinning hair.

The rumors are saying that hes coming here, says Jorge, who will later reveal his allegiance to Rosario Central, which skewed his opinions. Leo is from Newells. So hed be abandoning them if he doesnt go there. I want you to put that in the story!

The debate rages on. For Diego, a move to Inter Miami would jeopardize Messis preparation for the 2024 Copa Amrica, because he wont take (MLS) seriously. Argentina will defend its title when the tournament comes to the U.S. next summer.

They dont have passion here, Diego continues. The players in the U.S. lose a final and they go home like nothing happened. You cant grow if you dont feel football in that way. In Argentina a player loses a game and theyre sad for a week. Here they lose a game and it doesnt matter. They go out and party.

The other Cristin, the groups voice of reason, chimes in.

Messi has accomplished everything that he wanted to accomplishHow will he end his career? In peace and while he thinks about all of the incredible investment opportunities that hell have, he says. Thats where I think his decision is headed. I believe hes thinking about where to end his career. And in the U.S. the investment outlook is impressive.

Those are very good options in terms of financials, Diego says. Id sign that deal today. Where do I sign?

While the U.S. market is one Messi hasnt played in, his brand stateside has arguably never been stronger. Argentina will be the top draw when the Copa Amrica comes to the U.S. next summer, and hes the big reason why. Unlike Pele, Messi doesnt have to wear an Inter Miami uniform in order to be known and adored by the American public.

Still, it is not hard to imagine why Messi would be seduced by the idea of coming to the U.S. The same romanticism which could drive him to Newells may well bring him to Miami. The idea that he could come to a still-developing soccer nation and play his part in mainstreaming a sport that still sometimes feels like it operates on the fringes. Pel tried to do it. Beckham tried to do it.

Messi may just make his own attempt.

(Top graphic by Eamonn Dalton. Photos: Catherine Steenkeste, Mark Brown, James Williamson / Getty Images)

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