Major League Soccer saw an explosion of viewership around the world after Lionel Messi’s surprise decision to join David Beckham’s Inter Miami last year. Messi had millions waiting for him in Saudi Arabia, which would’ve had him join the same league as Cristiano Ronaldo.
Instead, Messi wanted to travel to the States, where his impact was felt immediately in Miami.
But to others in MLS, Messi’s arrival was more than just a publicity stunt or a way for him to walk off into the sunset after playing his prime in Europe’s top leagues.
Tim Parker, an MLS veteran who was up for Defender of the Year after a career season with St. Louis City SC, told Fox News Digital the arrival proves the league should no longer be considered a “retirement league” for international stars.
“I think Messi coming over is obviously the biggest one, biggest name,” Parker, who was promoting his Lotto brand team announcement on Thursday, said. “He’s still playing for Argentina. At first, people used to think when old guys would come over here, it was a retirement league, this and that. But he’s still playing for Argentina, he’s still scoring goals on the international stage. Yes, he’s still scoring goals in MLS, but it’s not like he’s not doing it against the best in the world on other stages as well.
“So I think we have to really rationalize that thought process of guys coming over here as a ‘retirement league’ because that’s just not the way it is anymore.”
In 2007, when Beckham arrived in Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy, the move was laughed at overseas because the talent level in MLS wasn’t even close to that in the English Premier League and La Liga, where he played with Manchester United and Real Madrid prior.
A decade-and-a-half later, MLS continues to grow in a positive direction with more international players joining the fold, and those like Parker who are homegrown talents that can compete at the highest levels.
For the eighth year in a row, MLS has broken its single-season attendance record at games, breaking past 8.6 million in 2019 and 10 million in 2022.
Messi’s arrival, as well as his Inter Miami teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and now Luis Suarez, shows investment by popular players worldwide. Sure, they’re past their primes, but like Parker mentioned, Messi isn’t done competing against the best in the world.
Parker and his City SC teammates will take on that lot this season after not seeing Messi in their 2023 meeting. St. Louis played its inaugural season in 2023, where they won the Western Conference, though they fell short in the MLS Cup Playoffs with an early exit to Sporting KC – a bitter rival.
Parker, who has played for the Vancouver Whitecaps, NY Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo in past seasons, tallied four goals while providing rock solid defense with 29 tackles as the team’s starting center back and a vice captain.
He knows it’s going to be tough seeing Messi on the pitch and trying to stop him and his supporting cast. But that’s the competition he wants in the end.
“It will definitely be a tall task, but it’s something that requires focus for 90-plus minutes,” he explained. “I think that’s one of the biggest things when you play against the best player ever, you can’t have a moment of lapses because he’ll be able to take advantage of those. And with his supporting cast, they can do the same thing. With Suarez, Busquets, Alba, all those guys they have at that club right now, it’s going to require a full-team effort of focus.”
Parker even believes MLS needs to continue its growth by opening up salary caps and allowing other teams to partake in building these super teams with international players interested in coming to the States. Beckham has set the tone, but he’s had to get very creative doing so with the 2023 MLS salary cap at $5.21 million.
“I think definitely the league should open up the salary caps. Give the power to the teams that are willing to spend versus the teams that aren’t,” he said. “And not that teams are necessarily not willing to spend, but we had success doing what we did last year without spending big money.
“I do think that by opening up the salary caps, it will change a little bit of the restrictions on the league. I do think there’s still a lot of that stuff going on, but that can change. We’re hoping that can change in the next couple years.”
More growth and exposure is what MLS continues to focus on. Parker knows first-hand what that’s like after seeing the outpouring of support in St. Louis, a city he said has been dying for a soccer team for quite some time.
As long as players realize the competition isn’t what it was like decades ago, Parker also can’t wait to see how else joins his ranks from overseas in the future.
Parker also can’t wait to help grow the Lotto brand in the States, as the Italian sports brand added him to its roster of 500-plus athletes worldwide on Thursday, along with making former MLS MVP Mike Magee their new U.S. soccer division head of talent.
After candid conversations with Magee and the Lotto team, as well as falling in love with the brand’s Stadio soccer cleat, it was an easy decision for Parker.
“As everyone knows, cleats are kinda the only thing that matters to a soccer player in terms of equipment and gear you get to really personalize and pick,” he said. “For me, last year I tried on a bunch of different pairs. Really stuck with two pairs, and one of them specifically which is Stadio.
“It’s really cool. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to meet other athletes and that’s also part of what you want when you join a family that’s so global. Then, obviously, I think I’m looking forward to growing the brand in the States.”