Lionel Messi is set to become part of the next chapter of men’s soccer in North America.
With a World Cup on the horizon in 2026, Messi’s announcement Wednesday that he will join Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami is another landmark moment for the league and the sport in the United States.
But he’s only the latest big-name international player to bring his talents to the U.S. Here’s a look at others who have come before him:
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was already a three-time World Cup champion and undoubtedly the best player in the world when he left Brazil in 1975 for the chance to be the face of soccer in North America.
The standard-bearer of “the beautiful game” joined the New York Cosmos of the NASL. He was 34 at the time and perhaps no longer “The King.” But he was still a commanding presence on the field and his name brought a buzz the sport lacked in North America.
Pelé scored 64 goals in three season for the Cosmos, leading them to the 1977 league title. His final game was an exhibition played on Oct. 1, 1977, between the Cosmos and Santos, the Brazilian club he spent parts of three decades playing for in his home country. Among the dignitaries on hand was perhaps the only other athlete whose renown spanned the globe — Muhammad Ali.
David Beckham’s arrival in the U.S. helped provide validity for Major League Soccer.
Beckham was 31 and had just finished four seasons at Real Madrid when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2007. It was the most lucrative deal the league had seen to date and laid the foundation for Beckham to become the eventual owner of Inter Miami.
Beckham spent parts of six seasons in Los Angeles — with a couple of stints at AC Milan mixed in. Beckham helped the Galaxy to two MLS Cup titles, appearing in 98 regular season games and another 17 in the MLS playoffs.
Beckham returned to Europe to close out his career at PSG.
Pelé was the first big international player to call the NASL home. Beckenbauer was the next.
Beckenbauer followed in Pele’s footsteps by joining the New York Cosmos for four seasons beginning in 1977. The Cosmos won the league championship three times with Beckenbauer on their roster. He returned to Germany for two seasons before rejoining the Cosmos for his final season as a player in 1983.
Beckenbauer made his name internationally playing for West Germany and continentally in Europe playing for Bayern Munich. But his impact in America was such that Beckenbauer was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1998.
Johan Cruyff acknowledged he retired too early after becoming an international star playing for Ajax and Barcelona. His brief retirement ended in 1979 when he signed with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the NASL. He was voted the league’s player of the year in his one season in Los Angeles after scoring 14 goals in 22 matches.
He stayed in the NASL in 1980 but moved to join the Washington Diplomats. Cruyff played the 1980 season and five games in 1981 with the Diplomats before returning to the Netherlands and closing out his career playing for Ajax and Feyenoord.
“Here, I am like a Ferrari among Fiats.”
Zlatan Ibrahimović was in MLS for only two seasons with the LA Galaxy, but they were two spectacularly memorable seasons filled with cockiness, showmanship, panache, and some spectacular goals.
Ibrahimović scored a goal from nearly midfield in his first match against rival LAFC. In 2019 at age 37, Ibrahimović scored 30 goals in 31 matches including two hat tricks and six matches with two goals.
Ibrahimović also became another example of a player using MLS as a springboard to return to Europe and find success. Ibrahimović spent his final four seasons back at AC Milan, where he scored 34 goals in 64 games and won a Serie A title in 2022.
Thierry Henry was long removed from his days as a star for Arsenal when he joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010. Henry spent parts of five seasons in New York and while the Red Bulls did win the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, Henry’s impact on the field didn’t match the billing. Henry scored 51 goals in 121 regular season matches in New York.
But Henry’s time in New York was important because it kept the pipeline from Europe open after Beckham’s move in 2007. Henry also stayed involved in the league after his playing career ended as the head coach for one season in Montreal.
After setting every goal-scoring record at Manchester United and making a brief return to his boyhood club Everton, Wayne Rooney arrived in America with D.C. United in 2018 at age 32. Rooney played 1½ seasons in Washington, scoring 23 goals in 48 regular season appearances, but his connection with the club went beyond what he provided on the field.
Following a brief return to England to play for Derby County as a player-coach, Rooney returned to D.C. United in the summer of 2022 as the head coach for the club. D.C. United is currently seventh in the Eastern Conference standings.
“To really come here, back to the MLS, back to D.C. United was an exciting challenge for me and something which I feel can develop me as a coach,” Rooney said upon his return.
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