Lionel Messi is clowning on MLS. Does that say more about him or the league?


Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi has been busy tearing up MLS defenses. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Lionel Messi’s latest MLS victims were supposed to be legitimate rivals, perhaps even title contenders. They came from Orlando on Saturday; they strutted into Inter Miami’s Chase Stadium to make a statement. But over two embarrassing hours, they lapsed, again and again, then succumbed to subtle genius.

By the time Messi camped under a floating ball in the 57th minute, they’d already parted and capitulated. They’d let Luis Suarez hobble to a near-hat trick. They watched, lazily, as Jordi Alba scampered through them. Orlando City defender Robin Jansson raced back to rescue them; he cleared Alba’s clever dink onto the crossbar. And it was right about then that four hapless, purple-clad men realized they’d committed soccer’s cardinal sin: they’d left Messi alone.

So they scrambled, desperately, to stop the GOAT from scoring. César Araújo leapt across the goal mouth. Jansson, tangled in the net, nearly ripped the entire goal off its moorings. Rodrigo Schlegel grabbed Messi’s shirt. Pedro Gallese flashed his hands in the air — to block a shot that never came.

Messi, instead, let the ball trickle down his chest, and into the goal, turning four Orlando players into fools on a poster.

It was brilliant. It was also quite easy.

Messi’s two goals in Saturday’s 5-0 rout were the umpteenth examples of his greatness, and the latest evidence that MLS is struggling to contain it.

So they became another data point in the polarizing debate over whether Messi’s instant dominance in Miami says more about him or his inferior opponents.

One side argues that Messi does this everywhere — at the World Cup, in Spain’s La Liga and beyond. The other side argues that he is exposing MLS as a second-rate league whose off-field growth has camouflaged on-field quality that still lags.

The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

The numbers

Messi’s Miami numbers tell one relevant-but-incomplete story. In 11 games last summer prior to his all-but-season-ending injury — 10 of them against MLS teams — he averaged 1.61 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes. That would have been the second-best goal creation rate of his glittering career, trailing only his 2012-13 La Liga campaign at Barcelona.

It would have eclipsed his rate in several Ballon d’Or seasons, and perhaps supported the latter argument: That his exploits say plenty about the persistent gap between MLS and his former leagues, the top flights in Spain and France.

The valid question, though, was about sustainability. The sample size was relatively small. And the underlying numbers tell a somewhat different story. Messi’s non-penalty Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA) — prominent metrics that essentially measure the quality of shots a player has taken (xG) and created for others (xA) — were better through 11 games in Miami (1.01 npxG+xA per 90 minutes) than they were in each of his last four seasons in Europe (0.96, 0.81, 0.79, 0.92), according to Opta data via FBref and TruMedia data cited by MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle. But they were below his 2018-19 and 2017-18 rates (1.14).

Messi, of course, always overperforms his xG numbers — which are effectively calculated based on the average player, not an alien. But he rarely, if ever, overperforms them by as much as he did in his first month and a half at Inter Miami.

Lionel Messi celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring a goal during the second half against Orlando City on Saturday at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring a goal during the second half against Orlando City on Saturday at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images)

His stunning overperformance was a product of otherworldly goals, even by Messi’s otherworldly standards — the free kick against Dallas, the opener against Nashville — but also mistakes that might not repeat themselves. It was arguably a product of the gap between La Liga and MLS. It was also probably a sign that regression was coming.

Sure enough, Messi failed to score or assist in his final three appearances of the 2023 season. His faltering fitness clouded those matches. So let’s throw them out, and focus on his start to 2024. His first three MLS games this year have produced preposterous highlights — and 1.33 npG+A per 90 minutes, still a slight regression.

Even that slight regression, to what we’ll call a non-injury rate of 1.55 npG+A/90 in 14 games, has put Messi roughly on par with his 2018-19 season, when he comfortably led a declining Barca team to the top of La Liga. That, for MLS, is a much more flattering comparison.

Unfortunately, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Messi’s mastery sparks debates on MLS quality

Messi was 31 years old during that 2018-19 season. He’s now 36. He jumped into Inter Miami games in July after just one week of training, with no preseason or familiarity, coming off a multi-week vacation.

He also jumped into a last-place team. At Barca and PSG, on the other hand, he was surrounded by some of the world’s best players, on teams that were consistently the best or second-best in their leagues. Peers like Andres Iniesta and Neymar presumably boosted his numbers. Peers like Robert Taylor and Diego Gomez, in theory, wouldn’t have the same effect.

And yet, despite those theoretical hindrances, Messi has basically traveled back in time to the peak of his powers. He is scoring more goals per non-injury 90 than Miami’s entire team did prior to his arrival last season. With Messi present, they have more than doubled their per-game average — and with Messi fully fit, they still haven’t lost.

Even if more regression is coming, it’s pretty clear that Messi’s move to MLS has helped him invert the typical arc of an aging career. And the easiest explanation for the inversion, of course, is MLS. It’s the lowest level Messi has ever played at. His median opponent here earns much less than his median opponent in Spain or France. He has an extra half-second of time on the ball, an extra half-yard of space to conjure magic.

But no unbiased observer is disputing any of that. MLS is a step down from La Liga — duh.

This, rather, is a debate of degree: How big a step down? How much has MLS improved recently? Where does it rank among the non-Big Five European leagues and the best of the Americas?

And frankly, 14 Lionel Messi games are very far down the list of meaningful data points.

‘The gap, every year, is getting smaller’

There is nothing translatable about Messi. He is soccer’s version of a wizard. He sees passes that no one else can — he saw them in Catalunya and Qatar, and still does in the United States.

And sure, he’s exploited that extra half-yard of MLS space — in midfield, and in the penalty box. But plenty of other international stars haven’t.

Messi has not adhered to any traditional aging curve; heck, he won a World Cup and its Golden Ball 15 months ago. He won his eighth Ballon d’Or in October, and not because of anything he’s done in Miami.

And what he’s doing, by the way, is hardly novel on Planet Messi. He’s simply replaying his greatest hits.

He’s scoring goals with his chest, like he did to win the 2009 Club World Cup final.

He’s combining with Alba and Suarez, like he did in his prime against some of the best defenders on the planet.

“When he and Alba connect like that, it’s ridiculous,” LA Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said after Messi’s stoppage-time equalizer on opening weekend. “It’s really, really difficult to defend.”

Saturday’s romp was a different story. Orlando had been hyped as a potential Supporters’ Shield winner. Suarez and Julian Gressel made its defense look laughably bad. Messi hardly had to labor for his second-half brace.

It spoke, though, to another point in this whole conversation. Messi isn’t solely responsible for Miami’s transformation. He brought with him an overqualified coach and three Barca friends. He attracted Gressel and some South American youngsters. This supporting cast alone could contend in MLS, where spending restrictions induce parity and shrink margins at every tier of the league’s standings.

There’s a reasonable argument, laid out by The Athletic’s John Muller last year, that Messi is indeed exposing MLS defending, specifically. Those same spending rules create unbalanced rosters. Money — and therefore quality — gets disproportionately allocated to attackers, leaving low-wage defenders overwhelmed.

But no, Messi hasn’t revealed anything about MLS that wasn’t already apparent. It is growing and rising — slowly. It has invested in youth, and shed its image as a retirement league, but it still ranks somewhere amid a messy pack of a dozen leagues — including Mexico’s Liga MX, Argentina’s Primera, Turkey’s SuperLig, the Liga Portugal and the second-tier English Championship — that are very difficult to compare.

It ranks below the Premier League and Bundesliga. Even its best teams probably couldn’t hang with the UEFA Champions League’s worst; and couldn’t hang in South America’s equivalent, the Copa Libertadores.

“The top teams in Brazil are better than the top teams here. There is still a big gap,” FC Dallas technical director André Zanotta, who previously worked at Brazilian clubs Grêmio and Santos, told Yahoo Sports this winter.

“But, the gap, every year, is getting smaller,” Zanotta said.

And if anything, the gravitational pull of Messi is narrowing it.



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