As the possibility of Leo Messi playing in the MLS becomes greater by the day, it’s tempting to imagine the possibilities: Messi squaring off against the Columbus Crew. Going toe-to-toe against Liga MX’s best and brightest in the AT&T All-Star Skills Challenge. The Supporters’s Shield. What an adventure it could be. If Messi does end up in the MLS, likely playing for Inter Miami, it will mark the final phase of a career that comes to a close with an entirely new adventure.
Writer John Gardner once posited (in a quote since attributed to everyone from Dostoyevky to Abraham Lincoln) that there are only two types of stories: a stranger comes to town, and a man goes on a journey. If Messi does, in fact, arrive in Miami next summer to begin his American tale, we could see a combination of the two. A legend walks away from the biggest stage on his own terms, still near the height of his powers, to begin again as a stranger in a new town. And while I’m likely stating the obvious here, the parallels between Messi’s decision to play in America and the 1984 feature film Footloose are undeniable.
In Footloose, Ren McCormack (indelibly played by Kevin Bacon) moves from Chicago to the fictional midwest town of Bomont—a town that has outlawed dancing and rock music within the town limits. Hoping to awaken the town’s youth to the liberating power of dance, Ren gains friends and enemies while challenging the local powers that be in hopes of overturning the draconian dance ban. While he’s not able to make any legislative progress, Ren does turn the town in his favor, ultimately staging a triumphant high school prom just outside the city limits and winning over the locals. These are, in short, Messi’s goals as well. Can he arrive in the relative soccer backwater that is America and win people over with his unique brand of highly intelligent and technical play? It won’t be easy. European stars landing on American shores have usually had lots to complain about when they experience the hand-to-hand combat reality of Major League Soccer. Italian legend Andrea Pirlo put it bluntly during his brief stay in America:
"It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.”
Just as Bacon found himself in a town that had literally made dancing illegal, so might Messi find himself on a field devoid of the kind of play he has found so much joy in over his long career. Gone will be the rondo culture of Barcelona, in which the non-goals flow like sangria and the perfectly-timed through balls from the feet of Andres Iniesta will be but a distant memory. Messi has produced his share of individual highlights over the years, but his most transcendent soccer has always been as part of a team who can support him and work with him to reach heights that will likely never be seen on an American soccer field. More than anything, Messi needs dance partners. Will he find them in America, in a league more likely to appreciate long-ball heroics than intricately woven tapestries of 1-2’s and fullback overlaps? Only time will tell. If Messi does indeed join Inter Miami in 2023, he’ll need more than a Kenny Loggins soundtrack to emerge with a happy ending.