It might be hard for most to believe, but Lionel Messi played in his first MLS game Saturday night. I know, I know, you’ve been seeing the highlights and stats before now, but his first steps into the North American game have come in the Leagues Cup, a tournament invented by MLS and Liga MX this year, and the US Open Cup. His first foray into the actual league came in Harrison, New Jersey, something he’ll definitely be telling all his kids about.
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Anyway, due to the minutes load heaped upon him since he arrived, and given that Miami’s fortunes have already either been decided by winning the Leagues Cup or the upcoming Open Cup final (it’s a lot of cups, but soccer just has a lot of cups. Too bad you missed the time when there was one team per year that was actually the Cup Winners’ Cup Winner. No, really), Messi was rested Saturday night. Which didn’t make the locals thrilled, exactly:
Understandable, given some of the prices fans had paid, but this is how sports work. Not everyone plays every game, especially when they’re 36. But the fans did get what they came for when he came on in the 60th minute and right before injury time did this:
Now, there has been a lot made about how Messi is basically getting batting practice fastballs by playing against MLS defenses, and certainly this clip isn’t going to do anything to dissuade that notion. A particular highlight is RBNY fullback John Tolkin meandering his way around his own penalty box like he’s killing time at the laundromat waiting for the dryer to be free while Benjamin Cremaschi runs in behind him. Messi just mesmerized five different players here, which he’s been doing since he stepped foot on these shoes. Tolkin and his defensive comrades might as well have paid scalper prices too.
It’s a little simplistic to say MLS defenses just blow, even if they might. It’s a little deeper than that, as defense just isn’t something teams are investing in. Scroll down the list of players either brought in as designated players, the ones that team can pay anything and not have it affect the salary cap, or made into ones and you’ll find that only two of a couple dozen or so are defenders. Of MLS’s biggest sales out of the league the past two seasons, two of 50 were defenders. It’s not something the league is prioritizing.
That’s not hard to figure out. On one side, with MLS becoming something of a selling league, attackers and scorers get the bigger transfer fees. When teams are developing players or buying them from smaller leagues in the hopes of getting a good ROI when they move them on, those creating and scoring goals are more likely to provide that.
Second, when actually splashing out cash, teams have been focused on buying No. 10s or strikers. Look at the standings, and almost every team at the top has one or both of those things. In a salary cap league, when a team can only splash out a couple times, they’ll skew to the attacking side every time because A) it’ll sell more tickets and B) it’s just how the league is designed.
So yeah, a gifted attacker like Messi is going to walk all over defenses that are basically the unfinished basement of every team. It’s how MLS wants it, and it probably isn’t too concerned about Messi being able to create a highlight or two every week. Even if a lot of us can spot the root cause at being aimless walkabouts like Tolkin’s.
-Now let’s watch Elly De La Cruz throw the sh*t out of another baseball:
-And then we can let Dave Roberts sum up what a Monday feels like:
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social