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Lionel Messi and MLS: Argentina must dominate Copa America to bolster league’s perception

When Lionel Messi stood on the stage in front of thousands of adoring fans who had waited in the pouring rain at DRV PNK Stadium, it felt like the start of something. There he was - 5-6 of footballing genius, the GOAT, the all-time leader in Ballons d'Or wins, less than nine months removed from lifting the World Cup - being presented to America.

In a sense, this was the culmination of Major League Soccer's dream. The immigration of superstars started with David Beckham in 2007, and had steadily chugged along in the 16 years since. But not until Messi was handed the pink jersey for the first time did it feel like MLS had really made a splash. This was not only a landmark moment for the league, but also legitimacy for the wider world. Messi gave MLS the co-sign, the ultimate street cred it needed.

A year on, and the league has changed immensely - not in competition necessarily, but certainly in notoriety. Apple paid $2.5 billion (£2bn) to secure TV rights for league matches, and directed some of that money to give Messi's salary a bump. Jersey sales have skyrocketed, while global interest has demonstrably spiked.

But perception is a difficult thing to negotiate. For all of the positives that Messi has brought to MLS - magical left foot, money, marketing appeal, mania among fans - this is still a competition looked down upon with scorn by many in the footballing populous.

Good thing, then, that the Copa America arrives on American shores this week. Messi will represent Argentina, and in doing so, become the de facto ambassador for MLS - a litmus test for the quality of play in the league. Pressure doesn't really exist for Messi, but MLS certainly needs the legendary Argentine to perform, if only to prove that they are a quality home for Messi - the greatest to ever do it - to kick a ball in his twilight years.

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