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Will bringing soccer's GOAT to America change Major League Soccer's reputation?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Scott Detrow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Definitely rooting for Red (ph).

DETROW: A few nights ago, producer Brianna Scott and I went to Washington, D.C.'s, Navy Yard. It was hot. It was humid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Arsenal is better than Chelsea. Ice-cold water.

DETROW: But there was a lot of excitement. Thousands of sports fans were there in this neighborhood that, just a few years ago, hosted the World Series. This crowd was focused on soccer and headed into the home of D.C.'s Major League Soccer team, the United, to watch the league's All-Star Game. As rabid as many of the fans were about soccer, they acknowledged that here in the U.S., this kind of scene is still kind of a rarity.

ISAAC DIORIO: America is considered the best when it comes to the majority of sports - basketball, hockey, baseball, football - lacking in soccer, though, so...

DETROW: Isaac Diorio (ph) is one of the many soccer fans we spoke to as they headed into the All-Star Game. A squad made up of the best players in the league was taking on one of the English Premier League's most storied clubs, Arsenal.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: One, two, three. And that was All-Stars.

DETROW: Many of the people we spoke to were clearly avid soccer fans, like Patrick Flemming (ph) and his dad, Chris (ph).

CHRIS: I think that the world community of soccer is something so special that is - nothing compares to it.

CHRIS: Yeah. I mean, I always told him, it doesn't matter where you are in the world. You can always find a game.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Arsenal, Arsenal.

CHRIS: That's soccer. There's no other sport.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal.

DETROW: Just maybe not fans of the MLS.

How often do you go to MLS games? Let's start with that.

ANDREAS GAZAO: Not ever.

DETROW: That's Andreas Gazao (ph). And he's not the only person we spoke to who had never gone to an MLS game. MLS is hoping that's about to change.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Inter Miami's No. 10, America's No. 10, the best No. 10 in the world, Lionel Andres Messi.

DETROW: Arguably soccer's greatest of all time - the GOAT, if you will - has come to play in America. Argentina native Lionel Messi walked away from Europe and turned down a monstrous contract offer in Saudi Arabia to come play for Inter Miami. Messi has been the defining soccer great of his generation, and the fans at the All-Star Game were excited.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He's like - oh...

DETROW: LeBron James?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: LeBron or, like, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky. Think of...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, LeBron James of soccer, right?

DETROW: Messi's arrival has many people wondering what it means for soccer in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: That he means so much more than just soccer, right? He's transcended the sport.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Getting international players in the MLS just helps raise the bar for, like, American soccer.

DETROW: And more specifically, what it means for a league that has long struggled to take that next step and break into that top tier of U.S. leagues.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Is it that bringing Messi in is going to attract more of a foreign audience to the MLS, or is it going to turn on more Americans to keep watching soccer now that we have a worldwide star? We'll have to wait and see.

DETROW: In our Sunday cover story, as MLS is about to mark its 30th anniversary, it's closer to the other American major leagues - football, baseball, hockey and basketball - than ever before, but it still lags far behind those top European leagues. At the same time...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Nor your No. 10. La familia, please welcome to the pitch for the first time in (inaudible), numero diez, Lionel Messi.

DETROW: The MLS Messi era began Friday night, when he came off the bench for Miami in the second half of a game against Mexico's Cruz Azul. He delivered on the hype, scoring a game-winning goal in extra time. Here's the call from Apple TV.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Messi.

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JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I think it's exciting to have really one of the biggest names in soccer history come to the U.S.

DETROW: Jasmine Garsd covers criminal justice and immigration for NPR. She loves soccer and Messi in particular. Jasmine is from Argentina. And last year, ahead of the World Cup, she hosted a bilingual podcast, The Last Cup, all about Messi and what he means to Argentina and really the globe.

GARSD: Every corner of the world, there are kids who are wearing Messi soccer jerseys. I've gone on assignment as a reporter to Uganda and Bangladesh and Europe, and everywhere in the world, there is a child wearing a Messi jersey.

DETROW: Every award or trophy you can think of, Messi has won it. He's scored hundreds and hundreds of goals, running around the soccer field making his opponents look silly.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: He topped it all off last year, finally winning the World Cup.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Messi, Messi, Messi.

DON GARBER: We want him to feel that he's part of the MLS family.

DETROW: Don Garber has been the MLS commissioner since 1999, when no one really viewed it as an actual major league like the NFL or Major League Baseball.

GARBER: The league launched after the 1994 World Cup with great fanfare. World Cup was very successful in the United States. And then we went through a period in the early 2000s that - where we were thinking of shutting the league down, going through and, you know, contracting teams.

DETROW: The teams were mostly playing to small crowds in cavernous NFL stadiums. And no one watching the games was confusing the New York-New Jersey MetroStars and other MLS squads for Real Madrid or other iconic European clubs.

GARBER: And then we got a call that maybe David Beckham would like to come to Los Angeles.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #5: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct pleasure and honor to introduce to Los Angeles and the world the newest member of the LA Galaxy, Mr. David Beckham.

DETROW: In 2007, Beckham was in a similar spot as Messi is now, a globally famous sports superstar.

GARBER: And at that time, it was just spectacular. And the crowds were enormous. And David could have gave us the cultural moments that MLS didn't have that the NBA and the NFL does have and then just became another player - injuries and the trials and tribulations and ultimately winning championships. And if not for David, there's no Messi. And frankly, I would say, if not for David coming here in 2007, I'm not sure the league would be on the trajectory that we have been on.

DETROW: The league has kept growing in the decade and a half since. Most teams play in brand-new, soccer-specific stadiums. Fans are filling the seats. I asked Garber about what comes next.

I've heard you talk a lot about comparing MLS to the big European soccer leagues. And I've heard you talk a lot about comparing it to the big domestic leagues in other sports in the U.S. In the long term, which is more important to you as you think about the next steps for the league to make?

GARBER: It really is being part of the global conversation of international football. At the end of the day, we're competing against big, established soccer football leagues that have enormous reach and fan bases that have a hundred years of history, that have got generational support. And that's the marketplace. That's the audience, particularly with a global media partner, that we're very focused on.

DETROW: How do you close that gap? Because you can have as much momentum as you want, but we're talking about a moment in time where it feels like trillions of dollars are being spent in some of these big European clubs. Just the money is more than ever before. The global rights are more than ever before. It just seems to be in another stratosphere.

GARBER: We're still in the earliest days of MLS, right? And you think about the lifespan of a company is - you know, they look at it in generations, in a 20-year period. We're still babies on that path. So we look at, really, what the future opportunity is. And if you think about things like our development programs, our homegrown player systems, our transfers that continue to grow in terms of our sales of international players, all of them are beginning to be part of the global conversation. And eventually, being part of that family ultimately is going to lead to the kinds of opportunities like the Lionel Messi opportunity.

DETROW: Last thing. I've heard you and so many other people at MLS talk about all the things you're excited about with Messi. What's the thing you're most worried about? Is there anything you think, this has to go right?

GARBER: Yeah. I mean, listen. He has to get totally inculcated into the culture of being in America. And people thought we set up the stunt where he went to a public supermarket - we actually didn't, you know. The guy wanted to go to the supermarket, right? And people down in Miami are big soccer fans, and they say, hey, that's Messi. And eventually, he asked his wife for the keys to the car. And he went in the car and probably listened to the radio, you know.

DETROW: He probably wasn't doing that in Barcelona.

GARBER: He probably wasn't doing that in Barcelona. So I think there's a lot of time that he's going to have to work with all the people around him and with the club just to get comfortable.

DETROW: So that was Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer. And when you think about his goal of making MLS at the same level as the European soccer leagues like the Premier League, it's clear, standing outside the All-Star Game in D.C., how far he has to go. There are fans streaming into the stadium to go to this match between the MLS All-Stars and Arsenal, and it feels like 90% of the people walking into the stadium are wearing red Arsenal jerseys. They're here to see the British soccer team.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I don't think it'll ever be what it is in Europe, but I don't think that means that it'll stay what it is.

DETROW: Still, many MLS fans really think the American League could blow up one day way down the line.

Do you feel like MLS could ever be at that EPL level, ever be...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Thousand percent. It's not a if. It's just a when.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Yeah. I would never say never, right? In this case, it's just the U.S. is so far behind.

DETROW: Messi will help with that, and he'll be paid well for his efforts, earning between 50 and $60 million a year, plus a unique agreement where he gets a cut of the revenue Apple makes from new subscriptions to its broadcasts of MLS games.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: It is more of the Hollywood-type model.

DETROW: Kenneth Shropshire is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. He's an expert on the business of sports, and he says there is no question Messi will boost the league in the short term.

SHROPSHIRE: The whole question becomes, is this going to be sustained? And are you going to be able to hold on to fans that you might bring in and sponsors and endorsers and others? And will there really be this next generation of athletes that have the option to play anywhere else in the world, and they say, no, I'm going to come to the MLS because I see the value that can be brought? And then there'll be, who will be the next one to get the Apple-type deal?

DETROW: What happens on the field will be what matters most.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #6: We are moments away from the 2023 MLS All-Star Game.

DETROW: At the All-Star Game, MLS's top players lost to Arsenal, who was playing without its top roster, by a lopsided score of 5-0.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #6: Marquinhos - Havertz. A fifth for Arsenal. This matches the record for goals scored by an international club opponent against the MLS All-Stars.

DETROW: At the same time, they lost in front of a sellout crowd of 20,000 fans. And in a sign of where things are headed, outside the stadium after the game, vendors were hawking bootleg pink Miami jerseys with Messi and his No. 10 on the back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.