Messi could be biggest athlete in US sports history, MLS commish says

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Lionel Messi ‘can be bigger than any athlete of any sport that has ever played here in the United States,’ but he has to actually play in the U.S. for it to happen.

That’s the perspective of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, who spoke to the Associated Press Sports Editors on Tuesday. Garber hasn’t been shy about how much he wants Messi to come to MLS, and that is clearly still the case.

‘I can tell you that we would love him in Major League Soccer,’ Garber said in a response to a question from CBS Sports. ‘There isn’t a league that wouldn’t like to have Lionel Messi in their league.’

For Garber, the key for MLS is ‘to come up with a program for him that will allow him to establish a legacy that I think could be unprecedented globally, let alone unprecedented here in our country.’

‘I think of him as someone who crosses so many barriers that he can be bigger than any athlete of any sport that has ever played here in the United States,’ said Garber, immediately putting Messi in a class with superstars like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods (not to mention putting pressure on MLS to get closer to the NFL and NBA in terms of national and international importance).

MLS ready to get creative for Messi

Garber was open with the fact that a hypothetical move to MLS would see Messi join Inter Miami, and that the league will almost certainly have to come up with new rules (or break existing ones) to make it happen.

‘We will work very hard with Miami, who is the team that is hoping to be able to sign him,’ said Garber. ‘We have been pretty effective at coming up with clever ways to sign players for our clubs in the right market.’

On that count, Garber isn’t just engaging in big talk. MLS invented new league rules to allow the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign David Beckham, ushering in the Designated Player era in 2007. Beckham’s contract included what turned out to be a massive discount on the expansion fee for Inter Miami, proving that time is something of a flat circle when it comes to MLS.

Clint Dempsey’s return to the league in 2013 involved MLS reportedly covering a $9 million transfer fee. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, signed a deal to play for the Galaxy at a discount in 2018.

A year later, Ibrahimovic would sign a new deal that paid far more, though that season eventually saw the Galaxy sanctioned by the league for violating salary budget rules by hiding payments and future agreements that would have made Carlos Pavón a DP that year as well. Miami — a club that has already been punished for breaking league rules on that front — would have to hold up their end of the deal within whatever new mechanisms MLS might come up with.

Competition for Lionel Messi’s services

Garber conceded that nothing is done, and that MLS and Miami face a competitive market when it comes to courting Messi.

MLS had felt confident they could land Messi in the winter, but in December Messi was reportedly closing in on a contract extension at Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona say they would love to bring Messi back to the Camp Nou, but given their financial mess they’re probably a long way from making it happen. Messi has also agreed to sponsorships in Saudi Arabia, a country with plenty of clubs that would like a star to rival Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

‘There are a lot of dynamics that are going on there,’ noted Garber. ‘He’s got a lot of things to think about in terms of where he wants to continue his career… It’s very real-time and I hope that we’re able to get in front of the discussion and hopefully bring something over the finish line.’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY