The Year of Messi is upon us. After last year’s sneak peek into a Major League Soccer season with the greatest player of all time, a full offseason of anticipation has led up to what promises to be one of the most pivotal in league history.
What kind of lasting impact Lionel Messi will have has yet to be determined, but his presence — in the short term — promises to bring more eyes to the league than ever before. From that standpoint, he is one of one. No one outside of Cristiano Ronaldo can generate even remotely the same type of interest.
In recent years, the league had intentionally shifted away from prioritizing big-name players at the end of their careers as a marketing strategy in favor of more up-and-coming talents from abroad. Still, there will always be a place for players of a certain stature should they want to sample life in the United States or Canada.
The profile, more or less, looks like this: free-agent attacking players over the age of 30 whose legacy is secured. To move the needle, there needs to be global name recognition.
With that loose criterion in mind, here are five players that could conceivably take Messi’s and move to MLS in the next couple of years. This is not to say it will — or is even likely to — happen, only that these are the types of players that MLS is positioned for that could still make an incredible impact on the league or might want to come.
What Messi’s arrival has taught us is that no one is off limits.
One of the greatest strikers of his generation, Lewandowski’s production has notably declined this year, his second with Barcelona after eight brilliant seasons at Bayern Munich. He’s averaging 0.45 goals per 90 minutes, which is tied for the lowest output of his 16-year career (2010-11 with Borussia Dortmund). For most players, though, it’s still an impressive scoring rate, and he would instantly become the best pure striker in MLS.
In 2017, Lewandowski’s wife gave an interview in which she said the couple hoped he would end his career at a club in Los Angeles. “We can say it would be our dream,” Anna Lewandowska told Business Insider Poland. If that’s still the case, the clock is ticking. Lewandowski is reportedly under contract through 2026, but there’s been speculation about the possibility of the sides terminating the deal early.
At 31 years old, the initial reaction with Neymar is that he’s probably still too young to be interested. Since he already left Europe for the Saudi Pro League, though, it’s clear competitive ambition isn’t what’s driving the Brazilian at this point in his career. A serious knee injury prevented Neymar’s first year in the Middle East from truly materializing: he played just 207 minutes without scoring a goal in three appearances.
As always, money is the complicating factor. His $300 million deal with Al Hilal is not something an MLS team could compete with, but after his contract is up after next season, it’s conceivable MLS could become an option as Neymar would be a massive draw. But there would also be questions, and this isn’t really unique to him, about how committed he would be and what risk that entails.
Griezmann has never be shy about his American curiosity and a move to MLS, at some point, feels inevitable.
“I’ve always said it,” Griezmann said in August. “My target is to end up [in MLS], with everything that I like about American sports, playing in MLS and enjoying myself, being able to win things and be at my best level.
“First I want to make history here and win trophies at Atléti. After that we’ll see … I think the arrival of Leo [Messi], [Sergio Busquets] and Jordi [Alba] is good for the league. That and signing younger players, especially from South America, it’s the best thing the league can do.”
Considering he’s still one of the best players in LaLiga on a Champions League-caliber club, Griezmann’s timeline for a possible move is tough to pin down and he’s under contract until June 2026.
Thomas Müller | Forward | 34 | Bayern Munich
It feels like Müller has been with Bayern forever, but he’s only 34 years old and still very much fits the profile of the type of players MLS teams would want to add. In November, German publication Sports Bild reported Müller had fielded MLS interest, although Müller has said he would like to stay at Bayern.
However, with just one goal in 17 appearances in the Bundesliga this year, Müller’s diminished impact could facilitate the end of his time with the club he broke through with at 18 years old. The added bonus here is that his fun personality would be a welcomed addition to the league.
The 2022 Ballon d’Or winner is reportedly unsettled after his move to Saudi Arabia, and while no move away from Al Ittihad is imminent, it makes it easier to justify speculation about a move to MLS. As was the case with Neymar, the Saudi wages aren’t something MLS teams can compete with, but if a change in circumstances is what’s desired, then MLS is an option.
At 36, he’s near the end, but he’s also still one of the best players in the world and would make the type of splash that would resonate in MLS.