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MIAMI — Lionel Messi is here, readying for his first game since moving to the United States, and the whirlwind is unrelenting.  

His grocery store trips equate to breaking news. Ticket prices for all his games, not just his expected Friday debut against Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, are soaring. Messi-mania is a bona fide thing, a mix of a presidential visit and a rock festival and a reality TV show, centered around the best player of this — and maybe any — generation.

Inter Miami is suddenly the most talked-about team on the planet. Reporters, celebrities and fans are descending upon South Florida in advance of his opening game and the message is clear: If this thing goes well, American soccer might never be the same again.

What impact can Lionel Messi have with Inter Miami, MLS? | SOTU

What impact can Lionel Messi have with Inter Miami, MLS? | SOTU

It all feels unprecedented, a never-seen-before snapshot in time for the beautiful game and its evolution in this country. Except that memory deceives us a little. For there was a precursor to all this, it happened just 16 years ago, and its influence runs deep through virtually every strand of the Messi to Miami project.  

Starting with David Beckham, currently co-owner of Inter Miami, formerly hyped as the savior of American soccer. 

[Lionel Messi vs. David Beckham: How the MLS game-changers differ]

Beckham had choices in the latter part of 2006, when it came time to decide what to do with the next phase of his glittering career the following summer. He could have remained at Real Madrid, which initially wavered over a new contract but by the end very much wanted him to stay.

He could have had his pick of any number of elite European sides, or he could have gone back to his native England, where old club Manchester United was just one of a number of teams that would have welcomed him with open arms. 

Instead, Beckham’s head was turned by the pitch made by the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, an impassioned vision laid out by club ownership and then-general manager Alexi Lalas that focused on the potential to change the overall landscape of American soccer.

Don’t let revisionist narrative take over. Beckham wasn’t past it, he still an elite performer when he arrived, having played a key role in helping Madrid win La Liga just before making the switch, and he was only 32. 

His Galaxy launch was played out on a grand scale, partly because this was L.A., partly because Beckham (helped by his status as a fashion icon and his Spice Girl wife Victoria) was the most famous soccer player on the planet, and partly because MLS knew this was a now-or-never moment to make a splash. 

Beckham was unveiled at the Galaxy’s new stadium in Carson, Calif., stood for hours of interviews, was greeted by Tom Cruise, stood in a shimmering silver suit and a cropped golden haircut. The mission was underway. 

Now in the owner’s suite, and with his playing career a decade in the rearview, there was no one better positioned to sell a new vision to Messi, why this was the logical next step after two decades at Barcelona and two years with Paris St. Germain.

MLS is in a far different place now compared to when Beckham joined. A league of 13 teams has grown to 29. Toronto FC’s franchise fee to join the league in 2006 was $10 million. When San Diego becomes team No. 30 in 2025, its owners will have put up $500 million just for the right to call itself an MLS club. 

When Beckham came, MLS needed a savior. The England midfielder was on a package said to be worth $250 million over five years, but had teammates making just $12,000 a season, some eating from the McDonald’s $1 menu to make ends meet.

Now, the league is strong in its own markets, virtually all teams own their own stadium, attendances are high, the quality is drastically improved, and proficient imports continue to come. What is needed now is an energizer, someone to take things to the next level to make MLS matter more intently on a national – and global – level.

Who better than a player who just won the World Cup for his country, with Messi having led Argentina to its spectacular triumph in Qatar in December?

Lionel Messi: best of the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Lionel Messi: best of the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Unsurprisingly, Beckham and his team have tried to base the Messi introduction along similar lines to his own. There was an unveiling last weekend, albeit delayed by rain. Messi is famously media shy and isn’t comfortable conversing in English, but the thousands that gathered at Inter Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium still received a rousing message. 

“I am very happy to have chosen to come to play in this city with my family, to choose this project,” Messi said. “I have no doubt that we are going to enjoy it a lot, we are going to have a good time and very good things are going to happen.” 

[Messi joining Inter Miami is validation for MLS and its progress]

MLS chiefs have waited for the next Beckham moment and now it is here, they aren’t going to be reticent about what it means. 

“It’s just continuing to defy everyone’s expectations,” commissioner Don Garber told reporters. “And at some point, five years from now or 10 years from now, there will be some player who is thinking about Major League Soccer because he saw the success and experience of Lionel Messi with Inter Miami. 

“It is a transformational moment for our league.” 

When Beckham arrived it was a transformational moment for me. Then living in England, an opportunity to cover Beckham’s first season soon turned into a longer-term gig, then a full-time move, marriage, kids and a brand-new life. 

Just as golfers talk about the Tiger Woods effect and how it changed their sport forever, so too will MLS players discuss how things would surely look very different had Beckham not made the change when he did. 

With so much time now passed, the Beckham Experiment, as late journalist Grant Wahl’s book called it, is judged on the macro impacts it had on the sport. At the moment, as it always the case with such things, it was judged on how things went on the field.

Initially, at least, that side of things wasn’t good.

[Why MLS has never seen a player like Lionel Messi]

Beckham arrived nursing an injury and couldn’t play at first, throwing a wrench into the plan of a multi-city Galaxy road trip designed to show off the newcomer to an American audience. 

The Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007, 12th out of 14 in 2008, despite Beckham and Landon Donovan featuring on the same team. Beckham went to AC Milan on loan and suffered another injury, trained for an extended period with EPL team Tottenham, and generally wasn’t happy. 

But Robbie Keane’s arrival provided a goalscoring threat and things picked up, to the point that L.A. won MLS Cup in 2011 and backed it up again in 2012, with Beckham having signed on for an extra year once his initial deal was done. 

“Having Leo come here is a dream come true,” Beckham said last week. But with Inter Miami at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, he knows the dream will turn sour unless the on-field fortunes improve. 

Highlights of the MLS’ next star, Inter Miami CF’s Lionel Messi

Highlights of the MLS' next star, Inter Miami CF's Lionel Messi

 Messi wants to win in Miami, he’s too great of a competitor for any other outcome to be acceptable. Lifestyle clearly played a choice in his decision, for if it was just about money he would have gone to Saudi Arabia, a nation with whom he has an ongoing sponsorship agreement and where he could have laced his pockets with far more than the expected $70 million package he’ll get here. 

He’ll have a challenge ahead of him, but he’ll also have help. Close friend and former Barca teammate Sergio Busquets has joined, another old colleague in Jordi Alba is likely coming, and former Argentina head coach Tata Martino has been installed on the sidelines. 

If Messi fires at anything like his best, it is hard to imagine MLS defenses will be any better at stopping him than Spanish ones, French ones, or international ones have been for all these years. 

Maybe this isn’t a truly unique moment, but it feels like a special one. Crystal balls, not soccer balls, can tell you what the future looks like and the full impact of the Messi move won’t be able to be accurately evaluated until long after he’s gone. 

But know this. There has been only a single moment in the history of American soccer that felt so significant as this one, and that set the sport and the league hurtling towards a historic explosion of growth and interest.  

The Beckham Experiment worked. The Messi momentum is already underway. Remember this week because, and this isn’t hyperbole, the future starts now.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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