June 19, 2024

The key to Lionel Messi’s MLS mission: Dominating games, not talking about them

MIAMI – When Lionel Messi added the title “World Cup champion” to his career resume last December, it seemed he had no expectations left to fulfill. There are no boxes left to check. Nothing else after nearly two decades at the most elite levels of soccer.

“He is no longer carrying that big backpack,” former Argentina coach Tata Martino said on Thursday, symbolically referring to the burden Messi felt until he managed to achieve soccer’s ultimate international prize. “It’s a good moment in time.”

But as Messi prepares to begin the latest – and possibly last – chapter of his playing days, there is always pressure and expectation. When he agreed to join Inter Miami and step into the unknown, to say the least, at Major League Soccer, he came with an unspoken promise. Elevating American Soccer to a new level.

People want to see it, they are interested in it, and the games in MLS and the League Cup (which includes both MLS and Liga MX teams from Mexico) have a new importance that gives it prominence. The best player of his generation is here, and the goalposts have been moved.

But Messi’s best way to be an American soccer evangelist is quite simple: Focus on soccer. Go light on the evangelism.

Soccer in the United States has grown enough that the 36-year-old does not need to play the full card of famous athletes, making the rounds of talk shows, publicity appearances and endless interviews with the media.

Messi must play, shine and win.

What impact can Lionel Messi have on Inter Miami, MLS?

What impact can Lionel Messi have on Inter Miami, MLS?

Alexi Lalas and David Mosse break down whether they believe Lionel Messi should expect to be treated differently in Miami.

“We have a plan,” said Martino, who was named Inter Miami’s new coach on June 28. “The plan will work better if we have good results.”

That’s an understatement. American soccer is beyond gimmicks. The early days of MLS in the late 1990s were important, but it could be argued that the league tried too hard to figure out what they thought American audiences wanted.

There were shootouts from the 35-yard line to tie the knot. Some uniforms could be politely described as garish. Many of the imports were past their prime.

As American soccer grew, so did its audience. What you see now in MLS is more in line with what you would expect at a European or South American tournament. Wages have increased, and so have the crowds.

That said, such an evolution brings different realities. Even when David Beckham arrived 15 years ago, his job description had a heavy publicity element. Not so with Messi.

On Thursday, a press conference was held ahead of Messi’s potential debut against Cruz Azul in the League Cup (Friday, 7 pm ET). Martino spoke alongside fellow new signing Sergio Busquets, the Spanish international who played with Messi at Barcelona.

Messi reunion: Tata Martino and Sergio Busquets go to Miami

Messi reunion: Tata Martino and Sergio Busquets go to Miami

Alexi Lalas and David Mosse respond that Tata Martin has been named Inter Miami head coach, and is set to reunite with Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets.

Messi was not present. Get used to it. He’s not going to say much before games, after games, or between games.

But there’s little that might be a little vague for the gathered reporters in the grand scheme of things.

Messi doesn’t like to talk to the press first, and the simple fact is that there is nothing he can say that will outweigh the impact of a great goal, a boost to Inter Miami’s success and possibly an MLS Cup title in the coming years. It is with his feet and bravery, not his mouth and personality, that Messi can further boost the profile of the league he is a part of. It will be with his performances.

Competitiveness is at the heart of everything the 36-year-old does. He’s won everything soccer has to offer, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t want to win some more.

The League Cup is a chance for Inter Miami to give life to a scary season, with the team sitting at the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference. Cruz Azul, its own enduring struggles in Liga MX, know that the main reason people will be paying attention to Friday’s game is to see Messi, not them.

But Cruz Azul coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti feels Messi’s spirit and gave his own prediction for what’s next.

“He loves football,” Ferretti told reporters. “Messi loves it. If he was already tired of it, he wouldn’t have come here. He came here to promote the sport, yes. But he can’t come here and it destroys all his previous experiences. He’s here because he still feels passionate about soccer.”

And the way passion plays out for Messi is not by describing it, but by doing it.

All American sports have an element of showbiz about them, but Messi is a pure sporting animal. If he’s going to be the kind of game-changer so many hope for, he’ll be leading the games, not talking about them.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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