David Beckham transformed MLS – Lionel Messi could take it to EVEN HIGHER level
When David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy in 2007, he became the face of a fledgling league in just its 12th season.
It wasn’t long before he transformed MLS entirely, and history could repeat itself if reports linking Lionel Messi to the league come to fruition.
French publication L’Equipe has said that Messi is considering whether to stay with Paris Saint-Germain beyond the current season – which is when his contract expires – and that Inter Miami are leading the chase to sign him.
If the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner does decide to play stateside, his impact will surely surpass Beckham’s with the LA Galaxy – with the Argentine taking the sport into a completely different stratosphere in the US.
Back in 2007, the former Man United, Real Madrid and eventual AC Milan midfielder brought sweeping impacts to the sport in America.
Then-LA Galaxy president Alexi Lalas presents David Beckham at an introductory presser
Beckham gives his jersey to a fan at the end of a Galaxy game in 2012, in Carson, California
Beckham celebrates after winning MLS Cup with the Galaxy – his second title with them
But even before Beckham stepped on the pitch, MLS was forced to shift how they thought about player compensation.
To be able to tempt the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder – at what was still a massive 70 percent pay cut for him – the league agreed to the idea of one ‘designated player’ per team, with their salary not counting towards the cap.
Beckham signed a five-year, $32.5million deal, becoming the first of many high-priced international stars to join the league. Today, each team can team can sign up to three designated players, and massively has Beckham to thank for giving it credibility within the domestic sports landscape.
The ex-England captain arrived in the US to find fields marked with gridiron lines and half-empty stadiums. Not to mention a country that largely did not take soccer seriously next to the NFL, NBA, and MLB.
While Beckham won two MLS Cups with the Galaxy and registered 31 assists in five seasons, his true legacy was giving MLS its first real star and putting eyeballs on a league that badly needed them.
The effects of Beckham’s move to MLS were clear to see from the start.
Beckham made his debut in a friendly vs. Chelsea, and the result (a 1-0 LA loss) seemed secondary to the arrival of a global superstar.
‘That whole day was madness, incredible buzz in the stadium,’ former Galaxy goalkeeper Joe Cannon told ESPN.
‘Every two or three minutes, when the ball went out of bounds, the Jumbotron would show a celebrity. It was such a spectacle that I don’t think anyone cared about the game in terms of a result. When he came in the crowd was just deafening.’
The media attention on Beckham was massive, and unlike anything the league had ever seen
ESPN set up a ‘Beckham Cam’ to stay fixed on him throughout his debut for the Galaxy
Beckham represented the league’s first major star and drew massive numbers of fans
The midfielder entered vs. Chelsea in 78th minute in his first appearance for the MLS side
The interest in Beckham was all-encompassing.
The player’s Galaxy debut on ESPN featured a ‘Beckham Cam’ on the network tracking his every move, while the suffocating media coverage extended to practice as well.
‘Typically at a Galaxy training session, there’s maybe four or five people from the press,’ Kyle Martino told ESPN. ‘On that day, there were hundreds of people around the practice field and helicopters flying over.
Galaxy and USMNT legend Landon Donovan added, ‘Even for me that was overwhelming to have that many people that interested in him. It made you realize that his popularity went way, way beyond soccer.’
Unsurprisingly, Beckham’s arrival was felt throughout MLS.
The league received an 8.2 percent jump in average attendance during his first season, with teams using him as a draw to fill seats for matches he wasn’t even playing in.
Since Beckham’s arrival, in fact, the league’s average attendance has increased by 40 percent (from 15,000 to 21,000 per game), while the value of MLS franchises has also skyrocketed in that time.
The Englishman’s arrival opened the floodgates for other global stars like Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and David Villa to arrive, as well as the young talent the league now teems with.
Atlanta United has created one of the best atmospheres in MLS at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Ultimately, the healthy state of MLS in 2023 is directly connected to Beckham’s arrival 16 years ago.
‘When David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007, he set out to help grow MLS and the sport of soccer in North America,’ MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a 2012 statement announcing Beckham’s departure.
‘There is no doubt that MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when he arrived.’
With a game-changing $250million global Apple TV deal that kicked off last week, the league has certainly continued its growth in the ensuing years.
But while it’s found a niche nurturing (and selling) young talent like Miguel Almiron and Alphonso Davies, it certainly would jump at the chance to bring Messi stateside.
A decade-and-a-half after Beckham was lured to MLS, he’s now seeking to do the same with Messi as the owner of Miami.
‘It would be Pele 2.0,’ Apple TV lead MLS analyst Taylor Twellman told DailyMail.com of the World Cup winner potentially heading to America. ‘You’re talking to a NASL baby, my father played in NASL and he played against Pele.
Taylor Twellman is a leading analyst for Apple in its new Major League Soccer coverage
Messi is just a few months removed from leading Argentina to a World Cup title in Qatar
Beckham (left), along with Miami’s other owners, could bring Messi to MLS for next season
‘I think you’re looking at a reincarnation of Pele to the NASL. What I think people don’t understand is the magnitude and the infrastructure of the league now.
‘Couple that with the 2026 World Cup and this is a rocket ship to the moon. I think Messi is the perfect compliment to that and if they pull it off, it is something else.’
While convincing Messi to ditch Kylian Mbappe and the Champions League for MLS would be no small feat, it is something Inter Miami and coach Phil Neville are genuinely targeting.
With Messi 35 years old and a few months removed from his first World Cup triumph, it’s not outrageous to think a playmaker who’s now won everything on offer would be open to a bold new adventure.
‘I’m not going to deny [it and say] there isn’t truth in the speculation that we’re interested in Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets,’ Neville told The Times earlier this month.
‘We want to bring the best players in the world to this football club. Messi and Busquets are the two that stand out more in recent years. They’re great players who would still be a massive benefit to this organization. For MLS, it would be a game-changer.’
No one will argue with the potential impact of bringing a seven-time Ballon d’Or to MLS, but it’s worth contextualizing just how significant his arrival would be stateside.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was immense for the Galaxy, but bringing Messi to MLS would top it
Messi is still arguably the world’s best player, with 12 goals and assists each in Ligue 1 this year
While some great players have played in MLS, none have had the combination of Messi’s stature and ability.
Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard were far past their best by the time they joined MLS, while Beckham (when healthy) Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and Thierry Henry were impressive but considered MLS because their careers were slowing down.
Players like Carlos Vela and Sebastian Giovinco, meanwhile, dominated after coming over from Europe, but were never near a player of Messi’s profile abroad.
Messi would be joining Miami largely still at the peak of his powers.
This is a player who scored seven goals and three assists in just seven World Cup games over the fall, the best player on what ultimately proved the best team. No one is forcing him to leave Europe.
And while Messi would arrive in an MLS far more popular than Beckham’s – with teams like Atlanta and Charlotte packing out huge stadiums – there’s certainly another level he can ascend the sport to.
The opening game of the 2023 MLS season, Nashville SC vs. New York City FC, drew an average of 390,000 viewers on FOX per Nielsen data (Apple figures have not been made available).
Four million greeted Messi and his teammates in Buenos Aires after he won the World Cup
Fans swarmed his home in Funes, near Rosario as plans for a local celebration were squashed
By comparison, the Super Bowl between the Rams and Bengals last year drew nearly 100million viewers on NBC, while even a regular season Giants-Cowboys game later that year saw more than 10milliion people tune in.
With the 2026 World Cup set to played in the US, Mexico and Canada, Messi could help drive a level of interest in the sport that even Beckham couldn’t.
After winning the last World Cup with Argentina, Messi was essentially worshipped as a God-like figure by his compatriots.
Fans swarmed his car at his home, and a mural of him lifting the World Cup trophy went up in Buenos Aires just days after Argentina beat France.
Miami could soon have its own star to revere, 16 years after Beckham opened the door for him.