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Commentary: The Lionel Messi circus is taking MLS by storm, but will it cost the league its soul?

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during Inter Miami's win over FC Dallas in Leagues Cup play.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during Inter Miami’s win over FC Dallas in Leagues Cup play on Sunday night. Messi has transformed Inter Miami into one of the best teams in MLS.
(Logan Riely / Getty Images)
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The circus might be coming to town.

That’s what Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja calls Lionel Messi and Friends, who are more a rock band or, yes, a traveling circus, than they are a soccer team.

“The attention that we get with all that is happening, it becomes a circus,” Pareja said after Messi scored twice to lift Inter Barcelona over Orlando City in a Leagues Cup match last week. And that circus could be headed this way, although there is still a lot of work to do.

Messi and Friends — former FC Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are along for the ride — pitched their big top in Dallas over the weekend, where Messi scored twice, then made his try in a penalty-kick shootout to get his team into the quarterfinals of the tournament, which includes all 29 MLS teams and the 18 Liga MX clubs. LAFC will clinch a quarterfinal spot of its own if it beats Real Salt Lake at home on Tuesday.

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If both teams win out the rest of the way, LAFC and Inter Barcelona will meet in the Leagues Cup final Aug. 19 at BMO Stadium.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up and see the Greatest Show on Earth. Or at least in North American soccer.

Yet there’s more to it than that.

When Messi joined Inter Miami, the poorly constructed team was 5-14-3 and last in the 29-team MLS table, 12 points out of a playoff berth with 12 league games to play. It is still all of those things because Messi hasn’t played a league game yet.

Yet with his former La Liga teammates Alba and Busquets at his side, Messi has transformed Inter Miami into Inter Barcelona in the Leagues Cup. A team that won just five times in 22 league matches has won four times in Leagues Cup play. A team that was playing before more than 4,000 empty seats at home is now selling tickets for thousands of dollars more than the asking price, at home and on the road.

For Sunday’s game in Frisco, Texas, Messi’s first away game with Inter Miami, tickets on the secondary market were listed at more than $700. That’s what could be headed here.

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In his three weeks with Inter Miami, Messi has sucked all the air out of the room. He has become the focus, the ringmaster of the circus by scoring seven times in four games. Messi didn’t score seven times in his entire first Ligue 1 season with Paris Saint-Germain.

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi controls the ball in front of FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal on Sunday.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

Messi, of course, is special. While MLS has had special players before — David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka — none compare with Messi. He’s arguably the greatest player in history, and though he’s 36, he came to MLS less than seven months removed from an incomparable World Cup performance in which he willed Argentina to a title.

He also brought Alba and Busquets with him. The three won 27 European league titles, eight Champions League crowns and two World Cups combined. It’s the greatest collection of soccer royalty to play for one team at the same time in MLS history.

That’s gotten the attention of important people in Europe such as FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta, who lost his captain, Busquets, his most experienced defender, Alba, and Messi, the talisman he tried to woo back from France, in one fell swoop.

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“MLS is an exciting competition that is growing every year. It will be great to see some of our legendary players, being raised in our elite soccer school La Masia, playing together again and I am sure the U.S. fans will enjoy [it],” he said. “I think that players still want to compete in European competition before going to the MLS, but [it] will be interesting to see how this evolves.”

Regardless of what happens in the Leagues Cup, Inter Miami will play LAFC at BMO early next month. Kickoff for that game has already been moved in the hopes it will find a larger audience for Apple TV. And that game will likely be a truer test of how the teams match up because Leagues Cup is largely a made-up tournament, wedged into an already overcrowded league schedule to goose MLS viewership numbers and widen Liga MX sponsorship possibilities.

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Which isn’t to say it hasn’t proved interesting.

Although Liga MX teams have dominated most interleague competitions with MLS, 11 of the final 16 Leagues Cup teams and at least four of the eight tournament quarterfinalists will be from MLS. That probably has something to do with the fact that all the games are being played in MLS stadiums, but it’s still a good sign for the league.

However, the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup are the prizes that matter most, and if Inter Miami continues to run roughshod over all comers when Leagues Cup ends and the MLS regular season resumes, that could be a bad sign for the league.

MLS has made great strides in recent years, proving itself to be a deep, competitive league. When Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007, it was feared he would do what Messi has done. Instead, the Galaxy suffered through two of the worst seasons in franchise history. It wasn’t until Keane arrived in the summer of 2011 that things clicked.

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While Ibrahimovic was unstoppable during his two seasons in Carson, scoring 52 goals in 56 games, the Galaxy never finished higher than fifth in the conference standings and won just one playoff game. If Messi and his two aging friends take their team from the bottom of the table to a deep playoff run, it would show that MLS is still fragile enough that one free-spending transfer window can alter the balance of power.

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Why should teams like the Philadelphia Union and LAFC continue to invest in scouting and developmental academies, wise roster management and multiyear strategies — all of which take time — when the competition can beat them just by opening their checkbooks? Weren’t the niggling and complicated MLS salary rules set up to prevent that?

So when the circus eventually does come to town, whether it’s next week for the Leagues Cup final or next month for an MLS game, there might be more at stake than just a soccer game. The league’s soul could be on the line too: Will the future of the league be the quick endorphin high of Inter Barcelona or the methodical, substantive and long-term planning of LAFC?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up and see for yourself.

? You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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