Lionel Messi came to MLS to play for Inter Miami CF. It’s a watershed moment for the league as arguably the greatest player in the history of the game arrived on these shores less than a year after winning the World Cup, where he was named Most Valuable Player. of the tournament.
Bringing Messi to Miami is a pretty big financial hurdle. Owner-manager Jorge Mas has confirmed that the Argentina captain and newly signed Designated Player will earn between $50 million and $60 million a year, more than the salaries of 2023 teams Real Salt Lake, Orlando City SC, United New York Red Bulls and St. Louis City. SC and CF Montreal combined – in a deal that spans the 2025 season, with sources telling ESPN there is an option for the 2026 campaign.
MLS regulations state that clubs can carry three Nominated Players, whose salaries will only count towards the cap by $612,500, regardless of what they actually earn. So Messi’s $50-60 million salary? For capping purposes, it’s barely 1% of that.
From a roster rules perspective, signing Messi was relatively easy. The hardest part is fitting other longtime friends and former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba onto the list.
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Why not sign them for equally lucrative DP deals as well? Because the South Florida club already had three designated players on its books: striker Leonardo Campana, midfielder Gregore and striker Rodolfo Pizarro. Miami has already tried to break the DP threshold once before, in 2020, when it appeared that it had essentially fielded five. He received the stiffest fine in MLS history for his efforts.
The club had to do gymnastics on the salary cap to make it all work.
Pizarro, with precious little time to negotiate a transfer out of the club, agreed to terminate the remainder of his contract on Friday evening. This freed up the DP slot which Messi now occupies.
Gregore, with a salary of $826,000 according to the MLS Players Association, will have his contract bought out using General Allocation Money (GAM), one of the league’s roster building mechanisms. This will pave the way for Busquets to sign his own DP deal.
For Alba, it’s both simpler and more complicated.
He is expected to join using Targeted Allowance (TAM), which caps his salary at $1,612,500 per year. Each team in the league has $2,720,000 in TAM in 2023 – essentially topping up the salary cap – but as part of the penalties imposed on Inter for their latest salary cap discretions, $2,271,250 has been deducted of their allocation spread over the 2022 and 2023 seasons, making them a scarce resource on South Beach.
Now imagine if Luis Suarez or any other friend of Messi wanted to join him in Miami. The club would no doubt like that to happen, but MLS wage rules would make that almost impossible.
For the 2023 season, the MLS salary budget is $5,210,000 per team, which excludes DPs and allowances. Such conservative boundaries have helped make MLS a financially secure league, but the arrival of Messi (with Busquets and Alba surely not far behind) could serve as an inflection point in how MLS approaches construction and list expenses.
Inter Miami is not alone in wanting to think big. Clubs like Toronto FC, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and LAFC tend to spend money to attract big names to their teams. Why should they be restricted to such an extreme degree?
“If you want to constantly compete in [continental] finals and win them, you’re going to have to rethink the rules and regulations of your roster,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after his team’s loss in the Concacaf Champions League final to Leon , last month. “You are at a great disadvantage. There’s a little more money on [Liga MX’s] side of the table, and money in this game buys quality players.
“But I think with our schedule and all the competitions this year, we had a lot to do, and we ended up in the finals not at our best time. Roster building is pretty much that, and having deeper rosters and more player-quality players on your team will allow you to extend those periods of play, and every MLS team is at a disadvantage there.”
Factor in that now every MLS team plays in the Leagues Cup tournament against Liga MX opposition, you’re talking a minimum of three different competitions for teams in the league (MLS, US Open Cup and League Cup), not to mention the start in 2024, eight possible teams engaged in a fourth: the Concacaf Champions Cup.
Our dear deceased colleague Grant Wahl used to publish his annual Ambition Ranking of MLS Teams, which no doubt angered the brass at those clubs down below, but he informed fans of how their team ownership was approaching investment – from infrastructure to player personnel.
With that in mind, MLS is at a stage where the ambition of players like Inter Miami and LAFC should be facilitated, not curbed.
The league is in its 28th season. The delicate nature of his childhood and adolescence, when his existence was far from guaranteed, is long over. By the age of 28, most of us have left our parents’ house and managed our financial independence, able to pay our own bills and learn from our mistakes. MLS teams can do it too.
There’s a logical disconnect when ownership groups new to MLS write checks for $500 million to operate a new expansion franchise, but are then limited to a salary cap that’s only 6.2% of what the NHL (the second most financially constrained major men’s league in the United States) teams are allowed to spend annually. If the money is there to start the team, then the money to build a roster to their liking shouldn’t be so dramatically chained together.
Messi’s arrival in Miami will undoubtedly bring many more eyeballs to MLS from afar and within those borders. Relaxing spending regulations for ambitious teams like Inter would strengthen the league and improve its ability to retain those viewers long after the Argentine magician’s departure from South Beach.