Now that Lionel Messi has announced his intention to join Major League Soccer's Inter Miami, it's a great time to look back at where this sport was and where it is going to go thanks to all of the legendary stars that have graced this country with their soccer presence. Numerous big-name players, including some of the top 10 best players to ever do it, have played in the United States be it during the NASL days or with MLS, helping raise the profile of sport in this country with each passing day.
But where does Messi's move to MLS rank among the biggest the sport in this country has ever seen? Let's dig in:
Honorable mention: Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls; Kaka, Orlando City SC, Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy; Franz Beckenbauer, NY Cosmos; Eusebio, Boston Minutemen; Bobby Moore, San Antonio Thunder; George Best, LA Aztecs; Gerd Muller, Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy
This is a guy who signed for the Galaxy as a free agent after leaving Manchester United, taking out a full-page ad in The Los Angeles Times where all it said was:
Dear Los Angeles,
#9, LA Galaxy
While he didn't win any trophies, he was unstoppable, as expected, including a crazy brace off the bench in his debut against LAFC which included a half volley from near midfield.
He ended up playing 58 games for the club and scored 53 times, including a 31-goal season in 2019 before making his return to AC Milan.
He was still a global star upon arriving with the sport in this country in a good place, but his impact was felt by every opponent.
His career ended with a playoff loss to LAFC and a crotch-grab gesture towards a fan.
4. Johan Cruyff, LA Aztecs
Cruyff's arrival in NASL in 1979 came off the back of his iconic years at FC Barcelona and a brief retirement. He and his family came to the U.S. after calling it quits at 31, signing a deal with the Los Angeles Aztecs after actually playing a few exhibition games for the Cosmos.
Cruyff is widely recognized as one of the top five players of all time, and I'd put him on the 1B tier below the lines of Messi, Pele and Diego Maradona. Those are my top three, and right after that come the likes of Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane.
He played one season and was NASL Player of the Year before moving to the Washington Diplomats giving the NASL one of the very greatest players to ever do it just as the sport was in its infancy stages here.
3. David Beckham, LA Galaxy
This was the move that really helped put MLS on the map globally. Here you had Beckham, the sharp-looking tattooed superstar with the popstar wife Victoria Beckham, "Posh Spice," the dream couple making their way to Los Angeles.
Beckham, at that time, was one of the most popular sports figures on the planet and left Real Madrid to join MLS on a free transfer, becoming the league's first-ever designated player.
He helped raise the profile of the club and the league, played pretty well during his tenure and was able to win two MLS Cups. While there were some bumps in the road, including controversial loan moves to AC Milan.
He would then join Paris Saint-Germain for five months before retiring.
Beckham's deal with the Galaxy allowed him to earn future ownership in MLS. He bought Inter Miami for $25 million, the club is valued now at around $600 million, and the projection is for the franchise to potentially approach $1 billion with Messi joining.
This one worked out for all parties involved, big time.
In 2007 when he joined, MLS was in its 12th season and featured 13 clubs and an average attendance of 16,770. Total attendance was 3.2 million.
The 2022 season features 28 teams, an average attendance of over 21,000 and total attendance of over 10 million.
2. Pele, NY Cosmos
For many, he's the greatest to ever play. The late Pele appeared to be a one-club man after nearly two decades at Brazilian side Santos, where he won everything imaginable. But the three-time World Cup winner would make the jump to the United States in 1975 as the marquee signing of the NASL and the New York Cosmos. He played 107 games, scored 66 goals and won the 1977 Soccer Bowl, 2-1 over the Seattle Sounders.
Credited with increasing the awareness and popularity of the sport, there was so much buzz about his arrival that swarming fans actually injured him and he had to be removed on a stretcher, according to The News York Times.
"Somebody ripped his shoe and pants off," said Clive Toye, general manager of the Cosmos. "I don't think he is hurt badly."
Stadiums would be filled to see Pele play until he walked away from the game in 1977.
Up until recently, it was always Pele and Maradona having been viewed as the greatest player to ever live, and there is no doubt that Pele's arrival has been the single biggest move for soccer in U.S. history ... for now.
1. Messi, Inter Miami
This takes the cake and for plenty of reasons. Messi is the greatest player to ever play. You can debate it all you want, but winning the World Cup iced it if there was any doubt before. Sure, the eras are different and you can debate all day just like we see regularly in the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James discussion in the NBA, but Messi has been consistently incredibly everywhere he has gone and has seriously won everything imaginable. He is the favorite to win the next Ballon d'Or after guiding Argentina to their first World Cup since 1986, he enters without slowing down in terms of his production, and he just had a season at PSG of over 20 goals and 20 assists in what was a dysfunctional situation in Paris.
Sure, there isn't peak and prime Messi, but there are many who will tell you he is still the best player on the planet right now, even at 35 years of age.
What his move does for MLS is plenty. The league now has the icon they always wanted, one who blows Beckham's arrival out of the water and it won't even be close., all of the home games are going to be sold out, and don't be shocked if this opens the door to MLS clubs joining the Copa Libertadores somehow just because of Conmebol's eagerness to get in on the action.
Assuming he's here for a few years, he's the face of the 2024 Copa America and 2026 World Cup, getting the opportunity to defend both titles in his new home.
Every MLS club will benefit from Messi's arrival, the league will only continue to grow as a result, and exponentially so with the Barcelona legend here.
The greatest player ever is coming to MLS, and the league now has its stepping stone to truly take the next steps needed to continue its pursuit of competing with the best leagues in the world.