Lionel Messi is the greatest living soccer player. He might be the best ever to have played the world’s most popular game. He led Argentina to a World Cup win in 2022. And on July 21, 2023, he made his Major League Soccer (MLS) debut. It was for the last-place U.S. team, Inter Miami.
In the final seconds, Messi got a free kick. He placed the ball on the grass. Celebrities were in the crowd. No eyes were on them. Messi kicked the ball. It curved around the opposing players. It sailed past the arms of the goalkeeper. It flew into the net. Game over! Inter Miami had won.MIKE EHRMANN—GETTY IMAGES
More than 20,000 fans were there. Millions more watched around the world. The moment moved Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham to tears. “You couldn’t have written it better,” he told TIME. “It was for MLS, and for America. It was for the future of the game.”
Journey to America
Last spring, Messi finished the 2022–23 season in France. He played for Paris Saint-Germain. As his contract with that team neared its end, fans wondered where he’d go next. Would he return to Barcelona? That team signed him when he was a 13-year-old soccer phenom . Or would he join other soccer superstars in a new league in Saudi Arabia?SIMON BRUTY—ANYCHANCE/GETTY IMAGES
It was a tough call. “I had several options,” he says. “I had to analyze them.” Messi shocked the globe by announcing in June 2023 that he would sign with Inter Miami. At 36, two decades into his career, he gave soccer in America a boost (see “Soccer Nation”). Attendance and ticket prices soared. So did merchandise sales and viewership.CHRIS SZAGOLA—AP
American audiences are eager to see Messi play, whether live or on TV. On the day of his Inter Miami debut, Apple had more than 100,000 sign-ups for its MLS Season Pass subscription service. According to the analytics company Antenna, this was the largest-ever single-day spike. And attendance at Inter Miami’s home games jumped 40%. It was the sharpest increase in the league.
Inter Miami did not make last season’s playoffs. The team was too far behind before Messi arrived. Even so, the Messi effect is at its peak.MARTIN MEISSNER—AP
The U.S. is a host of the 2026 World Cup. The U.S. team is thought to be a strong contender . With the attention Messi has brought to the sport, America should do well against the world’s best for decades to come. “This is one of those big tipping moments,” says Dan Hunt. He’s president of the MLS team FC Dallas. “Our player pool from [ages] 17 to 35 is the greatest player pool we’ve ever had in the history of U.S. soccer. If you think about our player pool from [ages] 0 to 16, it’s going to be twice as good, because we have Messi inspiring them.”
Soccer NationMEGAN BRIGGS—GETTY IMAGES
The U.S. is the world’s most profitable sports market. For some reason, it had never fully embraced soccer. But recently, that’s changed. The sport has seen big growth here. With the U.S. hosting three major international tournaments in the next three years, soccer is sure to attract even more fans of all ages. And Messi is one of the most famous athletes on the planet. When he signed with Inter Miami, the U.S. truly became a soccer nation—a fútbol nation.