Lionel Messi’s debut campaign at Inter Miami ended sooner than the club’s ambitious owners had hoped but the man himself seemed content with an extended rest on the horizon.
“I will enjoy the holidays in Argentina,” Messi said once it was confirmed that Miami would miss out on the MLS playoffs this year. “It’s the first time that I am going to have more days off in December, with the holidays, with peace of mind, with my people.”
Four months on from the seismic news that Messi would turn down the advances of the Saudi Pro League for a spell on South Beach, here’s how the Argentine’s inaugural campaign in the US compares to the starts enjoyed and endured by some of the game’s other greats in MLS.
One of the few signs held up in the packed stands of Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium that didn’t ask for Messi’s shirt read: “#10 on the field, #01 in my heart”. Messi arrived on a groundswell of goodwill but rapidly ingratiated himself to his Stateside support with a debut to remember.
With practically the last kick against Cruz Azul in the first round of the Leagues Cup, Messi whipped a trademark free kick into the top corner. On the back of a protracted European season with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi admitted that, rather than joy, he felt more relief from avoiding extra time.
Messi missed just 12 minutes of Miami’s subsequent run to the inaugural final of the Leagues Cup, racking up an unrivalled ten goals in seven matches before lifting the giant trophy in August. While Messi’s immediate impact propelled Miami – previously the team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference – to the franchise’s first trophy, the draining schedule derailed the rest of Messi’s maiden campaign.
Miami lost the US Open Cup final and slipped out of playoff contention while Messi watched on from the stands, injured as a consequence of 11 games in 44 days. It may have ended with a whimper, but Messi’s debut season wasn’t too shabby. As his manager Tata Martino curtly summarised: “We had three tournaments and won one.”
The technical difficulties that befell David Beckham‘s virtual presentation as an LA Galaxy player, with the screen filled by Golden Balls’ face intermittently cutting out, proved to be emblematic of his staccato start to life in the US.
Injury hampered Beckham but the calibre of his new teammates and managers didn’t help. While Messi had a Barcelona enclave airlifted in at Inter Miami, the Florida club’s co-owner shared the pitch with pool cleaners and gardeners.
Beckham’s first Galaxy manager Frank Yallop admitted: “I don’t think anyone was ready for him. The team wasn’t, I don’t think I was and I don’t think the league was quite ready for the enormity of what David was going to bring to MLS – and it showed on the field.”
After signing for the club in July 2007, it took Beckham nine months to get his first goal and win for the Galaxy.
“The young bloke from that first half, Henry, looks like he’s got a good future,” Harry Redknapp joked after his Tottenham Hotspur served as the Frenchman’s first opponents since joining New York Red Bulls in the summer of 2010.
Thierry Henry scored in that friendly and created both goals for Juan Pablo Angel on his competitive debut in a 2-2 draw away to Houston. Henry would only score twice as the Bulls made a late charge for the playoffs, providing moments rather than monuments as he adjusted to the demands of MLS and the fervent New York crowd.
Injury limited Henry to just six minutes in the playoffs but it was the MCL damage he inflicted on Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman that stole most of the headlines in 2010. While celebrating Mehdi Ballouchy’s goal by booting the ball back into the net, Henry accidentally kicked Hartman, jarring the keeper’s knee.
Unlike many former stars of the European game, Kaka had a long run-up to his debut season in MLS. Signed a year before the franchise got on the pitch, the former Ballon d’Or winner tuned up for his Florida bow with a loan back at boyhood club Sao Paulo.
Thanks to a hefty deflection, Kaka marked his Orlando debut with a stoppage-time equaliser in front of a record crowd at the Citrus Bowl in 2015. “The big money player comes up with the big money play and everyone can go home happy,” Orlando’s general manager Paul McDonough smugly grinned.
Kaka continued to deliver, rattling in ten goals across his first 19 appearances for the new franchise. However, the Brazilian’s debut campaign fizzled out after he received the first straight red card of his career for a foul on Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales that autumn.
Barely able to muster a thumbs up, Wayne Rooney frantically tried to catch his breath while Luciano Acosta was engulfed by an entire stand of Audi Field. Seven seconds after crunching into a tackle on Orlando’s Will Johnson to prevent an attempt at DC United’s unguarded goal, Rooney leapt back to his feet and boomed a raking ball into Acosta’s stride, teeing up a 96th-minute winning with a move that Roy of the Rovers would have blushed at.
Rooney was more often the finisher in the second half of his debut campaign in the capital, scoring nine goals as DC ended the regular season with a ten-game unbeaten sequence. However, Rooney couldn’t find the net in the playoffs as DC bowed out in the qualifying round against Columbus Crew, failing to convert the first penalty in an unsuccessful shootout.
“I heard the crowd saying: ‘We want Zlatan’, so I gave them Zlatan,” Ibrahimovic humbly recalled of his debut for LA Galaxy.
In the franchise’s first derby against the freshly formed LAFC, Ibrahimovic came off the bench to score twice, sealing a ridiculous 4-3 victory after the Galaxy had trailed 0-3 with half an hour left.
The inimitable Swede recorded as many red cards as goals across his next seven appearances for the Galaxy (one of each) but began to live up to his brash public persona with a glut of 19 goals across as many games to end his debut season. “Here,” Zlatan declared, “I am like a Ferrari among Fiats.”