With Messi in MLS and Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia, is a battle for star players emerging?

Since the transformative signing of David Beckham in 2007, MLS has landed some big stars. 

Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba, Nani and many more have come since Beckham, but 2023 brought the real chance to land a different stratosphere of megastar. After years of flirting, it was time to truly chase Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — two of the greatest soccer players in the history of the game and two of the most famous people on the planet.

The hope, and perhaps even the outright expectation, was Ronaldo and Messi would continue their long-running rivalry in MLS.

The Saudi Pro league disrupted that dream when Ronaldo spurned MLS to sign with Al-Nassr in the winter, despite serious talks with Sporting Kansas City. As more big names were then swayed by the Saudis, and reports of incomprehensible sums of money lined up for Messi, it seemed Saudi Arabia would get the continuation of Messi vs. Ronaldo, not MLS.

Messi turned down the Saudi money for the Miami lifestyle (…and also a lot of money) to choose Inter Miami, but he’s in the minority now.

Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kante went to Saudi Arabia, as well as in-prime talents like Ruben Neves and Jota. Firmino has a connection with Lutz Pfannenstiel, sporting director of MLS expansion side St. Louis City, and there was at least a distant possibility he could come to MLS if he turned down European overtures. Instead, Firmino signed with Al-Alhi. 

Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in the winter where he had 14 goals and two assists in 16 games in his first season. In January, sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group ranked the SPL as the 59th-best domestic league in the world; at the same point in time, MLS was assessed to rank 29th. 

“I think that Arabia is a much better league than the United States,” Ronaldo said. “I said that the Saudi league could be one of the five best in the next three years, but now it could be in just one (year).”

All of a sudden, MLS isn’t the obvious alternative to stars leaving Europe. MLS (or any other league in the world, for that matter) can not compete with the kind of money being offered in the Middle East. The Saudi Pro League is a threat to MLS for those aging stars, that much is clear. But how much should MLS worry about it, or even really care?

The Athletic spoke with sources, many of whom were granted anonymity in order to protect their jobs, to gauge the temperature. 

One MLS sporting director dismissed the Saudi league as just a newer version of the Chinese Super League’s lofty goals: “Not really a threat to us. They are getting aging superstars, I hope we are beyond that state in MLS.” 

“Once they get past the 38-year-old Ronaldos and get more (Diogo) Jotas at 24 years old, then it may be more of a problem,” said one agent.

D.C. United head coach Wayne Rooney pointed to the Chinese Super League as well.

“If it stands the test of time, it can grow,” Rooney said on Tuesday in a press conference at the MLS All-Star game. “Or it can do what China did 10 years ago when they put big money in then faded away. It’ll be really intriguing to see how it goes.”

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MLS is much further advanced both on and off the field in 2023 than when Beckham arrived.

Infrastructure laid over the last 15 years has primed the league to be ready for the next growth step, with the hope that Messi is the rocket fuel. The Saudi league, sources say, is reminiscent of the 2007 version of MLS which pushed its way onto the global stage with the Beckham signing, but did not have the infrastructure.

MLS has undergone a shift on the pitch over the last half-decade or more as well, with younger players arriving from abroad combined with a much higher baseline of talent than where the league was in 2007. Fruits of the youth development overhaul are blossoming, with clubs producing higher quality players and a higher quantity of professional-ready talents who can be sold on to bigger leagues for a profit. Instead of a “retirement league,” or a place where older players go to end their careers at a more relaxed level, MLS is developing a more sustainable business model and a higher quality league. 

However, the Saudi league will have more money to spend and fewer league-mandated restrictions to do so. As such, its development can be a bit more accelerated than MLS’ steady growth on and off the field. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund — which controls four of the top teams in the Saudi Pro League — poured resources to LIV Golf, a circuit challenging the PGA Tour. The two merged in June.

“I’ve seen it happen with China and I wasn’t concerned about that any more than I’m concerned about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “It’s quite the opposite. The fact that we can spread the power and influence of professional football around the world, I think gives us all or in emerging markets, an opportunity to think that it’s not just about Europe. Right?”

MLS roster rules play a big factor here. Clubs are permitted to sign up to three “designated players” (DPs), meaning three players on the roster can be paid an unlimited amount but hit the salary cap at a fixed fee. As such, the breakdown of DPs is concentrated heavily in attacking positions. Players like Jordan Henderson and Fabinho — the Liverpool midfield duo recently linked to Saudi clubs — were extremely unlikely to be targeted by MLS teams simply because of their on-field roles. 

Philippe Coutinho, a Brazilian attacking midfielder who has also been linked to the Saudi Pro League, would have been a more likely MLS target. Multiple agents have pointed out there are some players who will prioritize salary over everything, including lifestyle, and it would have been difficult to lure them to MLS anyway.

“It’s a difficult place to live,” said an MLS sporting director of Saudi Arabia. “You have to pay more for players, it’s only worth it for the big stars.”

One attraction to MLS for stars abroad is living in the United States and the American lifestyle. Many players spend time off here, like Messi, who already had a luxury penthouse apartment in Miami. Past players in MLS and in its predecessor league spoke openly about how much they enjoyed the ability to go out in public without being recognized, or at least without being recognized quite as often

“There are guys who play for money and guys who play for the lifestyle,” one agent said. “For me, the guys going to the Middle East only care about money. The lifestyle is MLS.”

The knock-on effect will be interesting to track. European clubs that transfer in-prime players to Saudi Arabia for big money will turn around and spend it. Maybe that boosts the market for MLS clubs continuing to sell players to Europe, or maybe it comes at the cost of some young South American players coming to MLS before heading to Europe. Perhaps even the Saudi league will go directly to South America and become a new competitor to the rising talent MLS has routinely targeted over the last decade.

Pirlo, Lampard and Villa did not have a successful tenure together at NYCFC (Dennis Schneidler/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On the field, accruing big-name stars hasn’t always correlated with results in MLS. In fact, it rarely has. NYCFC didn’t win anything with David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. The Red Bulls were a successful regular season team with Henry, but made a habit of early playoff exits. The Galaxy didn’t go far with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Steven Gerrard’s 18-month sojourn with the Galaxy was a failure. The Chicago Fire have been among the league’s worst teams over a year and a half with Xherdan Shaqiri.

Toronto FC spent lavishly on talent to fuel their 2017 treble-winning season, but Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were all in their primes. A more recent spending spree on Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi has come with disastrous results. Gareth Bale won MLS Cup with LAFC last year, but was reduced to an infrequent role due to injuries and wasn’t a focal point of their salary cap. Atlanta United won MLS Cup with a nucleus of rising South American stars, led by Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.

But stars still draw and stars still sell. They can boost the economics of MLS and attract more eyes to a league that’s still trying to break through to mainstream U.S. culture.

Plenty of Americans are tuning into the Premier League and Champions League, widely seen as the two best club competitions in the world. If a fan were tuning into a soccer game for exclusively youth development, why not watch, say, the Dutch or Argentine league? MLS differentiates with big stars, parity and the playoff system. Stars are how the league gets more attention in the United States for soccer fans who don’t follow MLS.

Toronto FC’s attendance last season was strong with Insigne and Bernardesechi, despite the club finishing well below the playoff line. The Red Bulls’ attendance has fallen since the days of Henry, though it remained strong in the immediate few years following his retirement as the team was one of the best in the league. Sources at other clubs point to a bump in tickets sold when a player like Chicharito or others came to town.

Messi’s pull has helped bring former teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba with him to Miami. Maybe this will help in future deals. 

Though not yet a direct threat, MLS and its stakeholders will continue to monitor how the Saudi Pro League progresses, what players arrive next and if it’s sustainable.

(Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

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