Inter Miami would be a dubious landing spot for Lionel Messi

<span>Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

The boos in Lionel Messi’s farewell match as a Paris Saint-Germain player made clear just how badly the Argentinian needs a fresh start, and a new club. Out of contract this summer, Messi faces a late career crossroads with three options in front of him – an emotional return to Barcelona, a switch that could be worth $1bn to Saudi Arabia or a move to Major League Soccer. PSG fans might have grown tired of Messi, but he remains a man in-demand.

As things stand, MLS would be a third choice for Messi. On Monday, his father said his son “would love to return to Barcelona”, while the hundreds of millions the Saudis are offering would tempt even someone as ludicrously wealthy as Messi. Having said that, MLS hasn’t pursued a player this aggressively since David Beckham was lured to the league back in 2007. Like Beckham, Messi is a player who would move the needle in the USA and Canada. He could kickstart a new phase of growth for MLS, and the sport in general, in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup on North American soil. Inter Miami, however, aren’t doing much for the sales pitch.

Related: Messi and PSG: a warning from history – and for Manchester United

Inter Miami’s interest in Messi is longstanding. When Messi left Barcelona in 2021, Inter Miami made an offer. Even before they had entered MLS, Messi had been sounded out as a potential signing. Inter Miami’s pursuit now spans years, but Messi is unlikely to be impressed by what he sees.

Phil Neville was fired as Inter Miami head coach only last week, after a run of four straight defeats left the team bottom of the Eastern Conference. That run was extended to five straight defeats by Saturday’s home loss to DC United with Javier Morales now in place as interim head coach until further notice. Messi can’t even talk to the manager he’d be playing for.

Nor can he look at the squad he’d be joining with any confidence. Inter Miami aren’t bottom of the East solely because Neville was a bad manager: they simply don’t have the quality to be much more competitive. Josef Martínez and Leonardo Campana have pedigree, and Jean Mota and Drake Callender have impressed this season, but Inter Miami’s squad has been poorly constructed over a number of years.

In 2021, Inter Miami were punished for violating league roster rules. The club was hit with a league-record fine and had its allocation budget docked for 2022 and 2023, something that continues to hinder Miami in the trade and transfer market. After the way he was forced out of Barcelona, Messi has surely experienced enough boardroom mismanagement for one career.

On top of all this, Messi would play his home games as an Inter Miami player at a temporary 18,000-capacity stadium in Fort Lauderdale under the flight path of an international airport – not exactly Camp Nou. Inter Miami have ambitious plans for a new $1bn venue to be built in Miami itself, but construction hasn’t even started yet. It’s not certain Messi, who turns 36 this month, would ever play there.

If Messi is looking for the best of MLS, Inter Miami aren’t it. Los Angeles FC would be a better bet, with their smartly built squad, full-throated home support and recent track record of success. Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders are two other mega-franchises that could put together a stronger presentation.

FC Cincinnati currently lead the Supporters’ Shield standings while expansion team St Louis City have electrified MLS with their exhilarating attacking style of play this season – both teams play in modern, newly built stadiums in front of sold out crowds. It’s highly unlikely Messi would ever end up in the midwest (although Sporting KC attempted to sign Cristiano Ronaldo last year), but he would be embraced there in a way that isn’t guaranteed in Miami, a city that can be fickle in its sporting passions (witness the vast banks of empty seats at the Marlins’ home games in MLB).

Of course, at this stage of his career Messi is thinking about more than just soccer. He already owns a property in Miami and visits the city frequently. The south Florida lifestyle clearly appeals to Messi and it wouldn’t be too surprising if he ultimately chooses Miami’s beach life over Riyadh.

It’s also been suggested MLS’s offer could include clauses that incentivise Messi beyond his salary. Beckham received something similar when he was given the chance to buy a franchise for well below market value. MLS’s league-wide partnership with Adidas could open commercial doors with Messi endorsed by the German brand – would they be willing to hand over a portion of shirt sales? Could Apple get involved as MLS’s new broadcast partner?

“We have been pretty effective at coming up with clever ways to sign players for our clubs in the right market,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber when asked how the league could bend its own rules to sign Messi, arguably the best player of all-time. “It’s very real-time and I hope that we’re able to get in front of the discussion and hopefully bring something over the finish line.”

Messi may not care much about how bad Inter Miami look on the pitch. After all, he could win matches on his own. The LA Galaxy missed out on the playoffs the season before Beckham signed, but built an MLS dynasty with the former England captain on their team. In MLS, it doesn’t make much to turn a losing team into a winning team – or at least a team that doesn’t lose so much.

Only Messi and his father, who is reportedly leading negotiations with potential new clubs, truly know how compelling the World Cup winner finds MLS’s offer. Saudi Arabia’s money may be too much to resist, or the sentimentality of one last dance in La Liga could be crucial. Messi has a decision to make and it must be better than the one he made two years ago. It’s not clear Inter Miami would be a better fit for him than PSG were.