by Paul Kennedy

Where does Lionel Messi's impending arrival at Inter Miami rank in the history of American player signings?

Messi will be the ninth Ballon d'Or winner to play in the NASL or MLS. (Others played in summer leagues in the early 1960s.)

At its height, the NASL had Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Mueller and George Best all playing in the league at the same time.

The two most impactful players, though, were Pele and David Beckham, whose arrivals coincided with unprecedented growth spurts in the pro game.

When Pele arrived at the Cosmos in 1975, the NASL was just starting to enjoy success in new soccer markets like Seattle and San Jose, which entered the league in 1974, and Tampa Bay and Portland, which were immediate hits when they joined the NASL in 1975.

Pele played for the Cosmos for less than three years, but the year after he left the NASL had grown to 24 teams. A remarkable achievement for a league that had just five teams less than a decade earlier, but fleeting nonetheless. Eight years after Pele's departure, the NASL was defunct.

Beckham arrived at the LA Galaxy in 2007, just six years after MLS almost collapsed, contracting to 10 teams operated by three investors. Soccer's roots were much stronger, though, and the single-entity business model, a direct response to the fly-by-night NASL, anchored MLS.

Beckham's signing from Real Madrid gave MLS respectability just as it was starting to build momentum. It added its 13th team in 2007, Toronto FC, starting a run of six seasons during which it welcomed at least one expansion team each season.

So what does MLS get in Messi?

They get the greatest player of his generation, the winner of a record seven Ballons d'Or, coming off the greatest achievement of his career, leading Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title after the most exciting final in the history of the tournament.

No introduction is needed.

But unlike the days of Pele or Beckham, many MLS teams don't need Messi to fill their stadiums, though they are already getting creative about developing priority ticket packages for Inter Miami dates, and his imminent signing has already set off an explosion of prices on the secondary ticket market.

One place where fan support has been a problem is Inter Miami, last in the league in attendance in 2022 with an average of less than 13,000 fans a game at 18,000-seat DRV PNK Stadium, its temporary home in Fort Lauderdale.

The Miami Herald reported that Inter Miami will add 2,500-3,000 seats to DRV PNK Stadium ahead of its planned move to its new 25,000-seat Miami Freedom Park in 2025.

Messi will be joining the Eastern Conference's worst team, in the midst of a five-game MLS losing streak and a coaching change. In that way, the Argentine's arrival in MLS will be similar to that of Pele and Beckham, who both joined lousy teams.

The Cosmos didn't make the the NASL playoffs in Pele's first season. Ditto for the Galaxy with Beckham in 2007 and 2008. (Both players exited as champions, though, Pele in his third season and Beckham in his fifth season, and again when he re-signed for a sixth season.)

The timing of Messi's arrival, six months after his World Cup triumph, is perfect, almost too good to be true.

It comes just as MLS has moved to a new broadcast platform, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, and launched a new competition, the Leagues Cup (where the Argentine is expected to debut for Inter Miami in late July). And it comes three years ahead of the 2026 World Cup co-hosted by the USA, Canada and Mexico.

The low-hanging fruit Apple and MLS gobbled up was the segment of fans (not season-ticket holders offered the service for free) who passionately follow their home teams. But there are only so many of those fans, and they do nothing to solve MLS's longstanding inability to make in-roads in developing a national television audience. And this even as rapid expansion has created the national footprint -- 30 teams in 2025! -- MLS lacked in its early years.

Finding paying customers interested in watching games involving teams other than their favorite team might be a long way off, but finding fans interested in paying to watch Messi's Inter Miami games? That's the hope of MLS and Apple, and also Messi, who will, The Athletic reported, get a share of the revenue generated by new subscribers to MLS Season Pass.

Messi won't be the same kind of public figure Pele and Beckham were. He does not have their outgoing personalities. Nor will he be on the same clear mission of selling the sport. If anything, there's an ambiguity to Messi's move.

"After winning the World Cup and not being able to go to Barca, it's time to go to MLS to live soccer in a different way and enjoy my day-to-day life more," Messi said on Wednesday in an interview with Barcelona sports dailies Mundo Deportivo and Sport. "Obviously, with the same responsibility and desire to win, and to do things well, but with more calm."

Lionel Messi will be a reluctant ambassador, but a very high-paid ambassador, and he'll be ours, whom we'll welcome with open arms and minimal calm.