Bigger than Beckham? Creativity required to make Messi to MLS anything less than improbable

Messi Beckham composite
The Barcelona star remains a dream singing for any club, but completing any kind of deal will prove very, very difficult for teams in North America

Any team that wants to sign Lionel Messi will have to get incredibly creative.

Few clubs in the world can offer the Argentina icon even half of the salary he is currently paid at Barcelona, and even fewer possess the sporting project worthy of his stature and ambition.

MLS cannot truly offer either of those things. What the league does have, though, is that creativity, and this would not be the first time that the league used it to conjure a move that previously seemed impossible. 

Getting Messi to MLS is virtually impossible right now. Prior to the most recent season, the Barcelona star said that his only aspiration is to keep playing at the top level. MLS, by all accounts, is not that.

The league cannot offer that spot at the top of the European hierarchy like potential suitors Inter, Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

MLS also canot offer the money. The league's best player, Carlos Vela, makes just $6.3 million (£4.77m) a season. That number is basically what Messi makes in a month at Barcelona.

There are only a handful of teams that could pay even that much, with Atlanta United, LAFC, the LA Galaxy, NYCFC, Toronto FC, Inter Miami and the Seattle Sounders really the only sides that have shown a consistent desire to spend big

But the league has been in this position before. In 2007, MLS faced a similar scenario as one of the world's most recognisable stars, David Beckham, hit the market. And, faced with that opportunity, the league got creative.

All these years later, Beckham's signing is still lauded as a monumental moment in MLS history. Beckham was perhaps the most well-known player in the world at the time, and his decision to move to Los Angeles is still seen as a game-changer.

It is a move that began the Designated Player era, and any move for David Villa, Thierry Henry, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Wayne Rooney and, yes, even Messi, would not be possible if not for Beckham.

To bring Beckham in, MLS needed to offer something that others could not.

Part of that was selling Beckham on the American dream, the chance to be a crossover star stateside. The remainder was offering him a look at life after his playing career ended: the chance to create his own franchise for the cut-rate price of $25 million (£18.9).

After several years of building towards that, Beckham's franchise, Inter Miami, entered the league this season. As franchise fees skyrocketed to in excess of $300 million (£227m) in 2019, it seems Beckham's business decision has already paid off. 

David Beckham MLS LA Galaxy

That is not the only example. The LA Galaxy's signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was seen as a coup, especially since the Sweden star signed on for a cut-rate salary for his first year. It was later revealed that the now-AC Milan striker had acquired a stake in AEG Sweden’s ownership of Hammarby, with AEG also being the owner of the Galaxy. 

Any move for Messi would certainly be bigger than the signing of Ibrahimovic and, yes, even Beckham. At the time of his arrival, Beckham was not quite a regular at the elite level of the game and, even at his peak, was never the player or goalscorer that Messi is. 

The question is: what does Messi want? And can MLS find a way to meet whatever that request may be?

Messi has never really shown a desire to be an American star, or a star in general. He is more reserved than his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo or Beckham, so likely would not be swayed by the promises of Hollywood or late-night talk show appearances.

He has also never shown a huge interest in being seen publicly investing in external products. While Ronaldo has jumped into fashion, hotels and mobile apps, Messi has largely shied away from attaching his name to outside projects. He has his endorsements and trademarks, of course, but you do not see Messi-branded products all too often.

Could Messi be tempted by offering him an ownership stake? Possibly. There is a lot of money to be made in MLS as the sport continues to grow stateside. The franchise fees indicate that, as most billionaires are not rushing to spend nine-figure sums on something with little potential for growth.

Lionel Messi Barcelona 2019-20

But there is doubt that the league could even truly offer that. MLS has stated that it is done expanding, at least for the time being and, even if it wasn't, most of the major cities are now accounted for.

It is hard to see Messi deciding to come to MLS just for the rights to own a team in Phoenix, Detroit, San Diego or even Las Vegas, even if the thought of Messi becoming an icon on the Vegas strip is a humourous one to imagine.

When it comes to his on-the-field contributions, the 33-year-old may not be at the peak of his powers, but he is pretty damn close. He smashed La Liga records once again last campaign, shattering Xavi's single-season assist mark, while still netting 31 goals in all competitions.

But even a past-his-peak Messi would still be something to behold. It would be huge for the league to draw in the six-time Ballon d'Or winner and there is little doubt that any version of Messi would absolutely annihilate your average MLS defence. 

For now, though, the thought of Messi firing hat-trick after hat-trick against MLS teams appears to be a pipedream. At the moment, it does not appear that all of the pieces involved are truly ready to align.

Someday they may and, with a little bit of luck and a little bit of imagination, American soccer's next game-changing moment could become a reality.