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Messi: MLS poised for leap to catch Euro leagues

MLS might not be on the level of Europe’s top leagues, but global superstar Lionel Messi said he believes it isn’t far behind.

In his first media interview Thursday since joining Inter Miami CF in July as a free agent, the World Cup winner with Argentina said MLS is poised to reach the level of competition on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I think it has every opportunity to do so,” Messi told ESPN’s Luis Miguel Echegaray. “That growth depends a lot on the league. It’s an ideal moment to grow. There are important competitions upcoming that will be played in this country [2024 Copa America, 2026 FIFA World Cup].

“It’s time for the league to make that leap and finish growing, finish looking for what it’s been seeking for a while. Everything is in place here to witness top-level football because of the country, the structure, a bunch of things.”

The former Barcelona star has been running rampant through MLS and Liga MX opponents since leaving Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season en route to Saturday’s Leagues Cup final — scoring nine times in six games, all wins. The growth and quality of the sport in the U.S. hasn’t slipped his attention.

“I think that soccer in the U.S. has grown a lot in this last year,” Messi said. “It has shown that in the results the USMNT have had lately. It was a great squad in the World Cup, too. Very competitive. It held its own against every team it had on its slate. It’s getting closer and closer to the level of Mexican soccer.

“This Leagues Cup demonstrated that. There is no Mexican team in the final. While you can question a lot of things, the reality is all the matches were very close, very competitive. Anybody can beat anyone else. I get the sense that the same happens in [MLS]. It’s a competitive one where anybody can win. One where the home team is strong, and it’s difficult to win away. I’ll still be getting to know a little bit of that after my first match.”

That MLS debut for Messi won’t be until Aug. 26, when Inter Miami resumes league play at the New York Red Bulls. Miami has already secured a spot in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup by making the Leagues Cup final, but a win Saturday against Nashville SC would give it a bye in the first round and the club’s first trophy.

“It would be incredible for the fans, for the club itself,” Messi said about potentially lifting some hardware this weekend. “While it’s been a great surprise that we’re about to play a final for people who don’t see us train every day, we have prepared for this. To compete and go for this title, because we know we’re capable.

“The team has grown greatly, especially since [coach Gerardo Martino’s] arrival, and we’re happy to have met our first goal, which is Concacaf Champions Cup qualifying. Now, we can play a final.”

And while Messi’s on-field joy is clear, his off-the-field happiness also plays a big role in his family’s decision to relocate to South Florida.

“My decision was based on a lot of things,” Messi said. “We thought about it a lot and decided with my family. I came here so I could continue to enjoy soccer, it’s what I’ve enjoyed all my life, and I chose that place for that reason more than anything.

“I can say I’m very happy, not just because of the results on the pitch but because of my family, how we go about our everyday life. We are enjoying the city and the welcome from fans, which has been extraordinary since the first day. Not just in Miami but the U.S. in general. We got to go to Dallas as a visiting team, and the treatment toward me was spectacular. So, I’m grateful for this moment.”

On an opposite note, Messi reiterated Thursday about his time in France with PSG: “Me going to PSG was neither planned, nor desired. I did not want to leave Barcelona.”

Another revelation from Messi — and one there had been plenty of speculation about — was that he will be fine playing on artificial turf once MLS play resumes later this month. Miami is scheduled to play on two turf fields — at Atlanta United FC and Charlotte FC — in its remaining regular-season league games.

“I spent my youth on artificial turf, my whole life was on that pitch,” Messi said. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on an artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again.”

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