SoccerAmerica at Large

Messi will move the needle for US soccer but he can never have the impact that Pelé had

Inter Miami will flog a lot of shirts but the game in the USA is as big as it will ever be

They aired 14-year-old Freddy Adu’s Sierra Mist commercial with Pelé for the first time during his nationally televised debut for DC United in Major League Soccer, kicking off a career that was going to revolutionise the sport in America.

It didn’t. It never could have. Not long after that David Beckham joined Los Angeles Galaxy, a move that was, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, going to transform the game in America. Didn’t. Never could have. You’ll understand then if we don’t quite share the giddy ridiculousness attending the arrival of Lionel Messi in Miami.

Obviously, he is of a different calibre than his predecessors, and it will be fun to watch him provide viral moments like last Friday night’s free-kick but fanciful media hyperbole about growing the sport is so much nonsense.

Soccer here is as big as it will ever be. An estimated 12 million Americans play the game, and it remains a predominantly white middle-class affair with a pay-to-play model jealously ensuring it stays that way. The very demographic who can well afford to pay over the odds to see Messi when he swings through town once a year. The sporting tourism equivalent of stumping up for a Broadway show or a Taylor Swift concert.


These people have already bought into the hype and ordered replica shirts for their excited kids. Judging by the numbers spotted around New York this past few days, Inter Miami will flog a lot of those, and most will end up stuffed in the back of wardrobes, relics of a passing fad. All across America, men and women who in childhood sported gleaming white Galaxy jerseys with Beckham 23 on the back couldn’t name a single MLS player, beyond Messi, today.

Like the League of Ireland, most clubs boast a hardcore rump of supporters, and an awful lot of day trippers dip in and out as the success of the local outfit or their child’s interest waxes and wanes. Messi will move the needle as long as he’s here but he can never do what Pelé did. For many reasons.

The Brazilian’s presence in the NASL in the 1970s was truly metamorphic because soccer was still somewhat novel then and hadn’t really put down deep roots here beyond immigrant enclaves.

In the ever-expanding suburbs baby boomers were happy for their children to sample this new exotic delicacy, more exciting to play than baseball, less dangerous than gridiron, a curio that hadn’t even been on their own parents’ radars just a generation earlier. But this is a very different country than it was even when Beckham arrived in 2007. And not in a good way.

As part of the ongoing, tiresome culture wars, one half of the population now regard soccer as vaguely suspicious, somehow socialist, and occasionally downright un-American, yet another example of insidious foreign interlopers trying to take over.

Demented nativists will not be falling hard for a diminutive Argentine genius speaking Spanish (a trigger for many of these poor souls) no matter how many highlights turn up on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays of the day. Indeed, bitter ESPN may not show many of those clips because they recently lost the Major League Soccer contract.

In a move that lined ownership pockets while reducing accessibility and retarding long-term growth, MLS took a whopping $250 million a season to put its often-mediocre product behind an Apple TV paywall this year, leaving only a handful of games to be broadcast on regular television by Fox Sports, an outfit whose coverage is legendarily dire.

No matter how wondrous Messi performs, it’s difficult to imagine that many people purchasing the Season Pass subscription on Apple when it’s easier and cheaper to catch better quality fare like every single game from the Premier League, Primera Liga, Bundesliga, and Champions League on more popular streaming services.

It’s a logistical problem, too, that 72 per cent of Latinos in this country (the most rabid soccer fans) own Android phones that don’t have an app for Apple TV. Not to mention anyone interested already sees enough European matches on telly to know MLS doesn’t bear comparison, no matter how many semi-superannuated icons Miami sign.

Last weekend 95,000 filled the Rose Bowl to see AC Milan v Real Madrid and more than 82,000 watched Arsenal v Manchester United at MetLife Stadium, where the cheapest nosebleed seats cost $179. Pre-season friendlies drawing those sort of crowds is why the Premier League recently opened a New York office to explore lucrative commercial opportunities over here.

Other logistical obstacles are worth considering too. Rotgut peddler Conor McGregor remains the face of UFC years after his competitive sell-by date. This is because, in his pomp, unlike so many of his peers, he could go on chat shows, talk smack, and deliver slices of shamroguery that garnered headlines beyond the sports pages.

Messi doesn’t speak English and, even if he did, that’s not a showbiz road he was ever likely to tramp down. Difficult to imagine him juggling the ball and yukking it up for the cameras, like poor old Freddy Adu, a child being exploited by adults who should have known better, once did for David Letterman.

In the end, Messi will make truckloads of money for himself, David Beckham, Adidas, and maybe even Apple. And when he departs, American soccer will be exactly as he found it.