Lionel Messi has taken Major League Soccer by storm without yet playing a Major League Soccer match. Apple TV is as elated as a streaming service can be during a content-crippling Hollywood strike. Fort Lauderdale has its newest Publix devotee. And every MLS stadium he’ll eventually visit from Dallas to Charlotte can bank on an economic boom even Taylor Swift would be proud of.
Messi’s arrival made for the perfect storm in the expanded Leagues Cup as he, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba showed up in pink-polo, South Florida style and transformed a struggling Inter Miami side into champions of the midseason Liga MX and MLS tournament.
It started with Messi’s debut and a 94th-minute winner in Inter Miami’s opening group-stage match against Mexican side Cruz Azul on July 22 after coming on as a substitute, and it ended with a penalty-shootout victory in the cup final over Nashville. The MLS team with the fewest points this season lifted the trophy in large part thanks to its new 2023 leading scorer. The Argentine scored in every Leagues Cup match, totaling 10 in seven games to immediately raise the bar for speculation on what’s possible at the individual and team level after his move from Paris Saint-Germain.
If that wasn’t enough, the Argentine also starred in Miami’s US Open Cup semi-final win over FC Cincinnati, delivering two sumptuous crosses for Leonardo Campana to head home in regular time. He then also scored his penalty as Miami progressed in the resulting shootout.
And now, in his debut in the MLS, Messi’s second-half goal put the icing on the cake as Inter Miami defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-0 on Saturday.
Last month, D.C. United manager Wayne Rooney said the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner wouldn’t find it easy in MLS. And while it should be noted he’s not the only summer change in the Miami XI, it also must be said 11 goals in nine games with a trophy to show for it has some signifiers of easy.
The manner in which Lionel Messi signalled his arrival in the North American version of the sport he’s dominated for his entire adult life was nothing short of spectacular. The epilogue is officially underway. Should it continue this way, here are the records to consider from Messi’s first MLS game onward into his first full campaign come 2024.
Fastest to 10 Goals in MLS History
It didn’t take long for Messi to score his first 10 goals in an Inter Miami shirt, but none of those count toward this record because those seven games were all in the Leagues Cup.
However, with a goal on his MLS debut, he’s very much on track to get to 10 MLS goals faster than anyone else.
To set the outright record for the fastest to 10 MLS goals, Messi will need to get there in nine games. Doing it in 10 would equal Carlos Ruiz and Mamadou Diallo.
To be the fastest to five, he’ll need to start at quite the accelerated pace because current Inter Miami teammate Josef Martínez and Ruiz both got their first five goals in three games in the league.
Some simple math tells us that to have that record outright, he’d need a hat-trick in at least one of those first two games to get to five goals. If he were to get that hat-trick on his league debut, he’d be the first player in the league’s history to score a hat-trick in his first appearance. Twenty-one players have scored a brace on their MLS debuts, most recently Nathan Fogaça for the Portland Timbers in May 2022.
Most Career MLS Hat-Tricks
Messi is yet to record a hat-trick for Inter Miami, but he’s six off the MLS record. That’s held by Martínez, who could extend the record while playing alongside Messi.
Four other players have managed five trebles in the regular season, and Stern John’s total goes to six if you include the playoffs – six in 65 MLS matches. Decent.
Messi didn’t manage a hat-trick with PSG and his last club hat-trick came more than three years ago, but he has 57 career hat-tricks with 48 at the club level and 36 in La Liga matches. If Messi plays three seasons and Miami build a decent team around him, this record absolutely seems doable.
Most Consecutive Games With a Goal in MLS History (and Other Goalscoring Streaks)
By this point in the list, we should be realizing Josef Martínez was prolific with Atlanta United. His name pops up again here for scoring in 15 straight MLS matches during the 2019 season.
Messi’s started his run on this record, but it will need to stretch into next season. However, along the way, he would set the league record for the most consecutive games with a goal to start an MLS career. Brian Fernández is the only player to score in his first five games, which he did for the Portland Timbers in May and June of 2019.
With this record, it’s also interesting to consider Messi’s personal best-scoring streaks in all club competitions. His best run across all competitions with Barcelona came in the winter of 2012-13, where he scored 16 goals in 10 games. He also had two streaks of nine matches there and one of eight. He scored 18 goals on that eight-game streak in February and March of 2012.
Because we’ve gone with all competitions here, this buries the fact that he once scored in 21 straight La Liga matches in 2012-13, which raises the question of which of these streaks you’d rather go back and witness: 18 goals over eight games in all competitions or 33 over 21 league matches.
That streak lasted from early November to early May – a period of time more in line with a manager’s tenure at a club than an individual’s scoring streak.
Most MLS Goals in a Season (and Other Single-Season Marks)
It’s out of reach with his season debut coming in August, but the MLS single-season scoring record is 34, set by Carlos Vela for LAFC in 2019, and the Mexican needed just 31 regular-season matches to get there. Messi has a maximum of 12 league matches ahead of him in 2023.
But it’s never too early to start considering your 2024 bets. If he were to get to 30 next season, he’d be the fourth player to do so along with Vela, Martínez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
If you’re wondering about goals in a debut season, that’s also out of reach. Roy Lassiter’s 27 goals for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in MLS’ inaugural 1996 season are still the most by a player in their first year in the league. He did it in 30 matches, then piled on six more in five post-season games.
Messi’s best chance for a single-season goals record in 2023 may be winning the Golden Boot, which seems ridiculous to say about someone with just one league goal with his team 23 matches into the season. He could play 12 matches, and if he were to somehow pass current pacesetter Hany Mukhtar (13 goals for Nashville so far) and the other 11 MLS players with at least 10 league goals already, he’d set the mark for the fewest games to become the league’s top scorer.
For context, Diego Rossi scored a league-high 14 goals in 19 games during the 2020 season, but that was a shortened season. Jaime Moreno scored 16 in 20 games in 1997 as the league’s top scorer, but he didn’t technically win the Golden Boot because until 2004 the Golden Boot included assists. If you’re looking for a number without an asterisk here, Landon Donovan scored 20 goals in 25 games in 2008. Messi would need to do it in fewer than half the games.
Most Direct Free-Kick Goals in MLS History
Two of Messi’s Leagues Cup goals came from free-kicks to increase his club total to 54 across all competitions in Spain, France and now the United States, so let’s dig into Messi as the potential master of the MLS dead-ball scenario.
This is also a potential record for his MLS career as a whole. MLS free-kick records go back to 2003, and in that time Sebastian Giovinco leads the way with 13 free-kick goals for Toronto FC.
Now, what’s a realistic number of free-kick goals in a season so we can project this out over two or three seasons for Messi? Giovinco did his damage in three seasons, and he scored six of those in the 2017 regular season.
If we go back to the era of Messi’s current employer David Beckham coming to America, only three players have been able to score at least four regular-season free-kicks in a season. Giovinco also scored five in 2015, Lucas Zelarayán managed five in 2021 and Beckham got to four in 2012.
The most Messi scored in a season in Europe was eight in 50 games in 2018-19 across all competitions with Barcelona. Six of those came in La Liga matches, which he equaled in 2017-18. He converted at least four free kicks in four La Liga seasons. So putting his name on the above list is doable, but it would likely take at least three seasons.
Fastest to 10 Assists in MLS History
With Messi, goalscoring records are a huge part of the conversation but they’re not the whole conversation. There may also be some achievable assist numbers. For MLS lifers and global fans of the ’90s game, this brings to mind the unforgettable Carlos Valderrama.
The Colombian playmaker had an MLS record 26 assists in 2000 for Tampa Bay. Back in his debut season, it took him 15 games to record his first 10 assists, but that’s not quite record pace for the fastest to 10 assists. Andy Williams did it in 12 games for the Columbus Crew back in 1999, then Kaku matched that for the New York Red Bulls in 2018.
Messi registered one assist in his seven Leagues Cup matches, but grabbed two in the US Open Cup semi. He’s also coming off a season at Paris Saint-Germain in which he tallied 16 assists in 32 Ligue 1 matches. Ten of those came in his first 12 matches of the season.
What could this all mean for Inter Miami’s chances to add to their Leagues Cup trophy by squeaking through the gates into the Eastern Conference playoffs to extend the season at DRV PNK Stadium? Well, it would take an unprecedented turnaround (but that’s kind of already happening).
Excluding the 2020 season’s expanded playoff field, no team since 2000 (the post-shootout era in MLS) has made the playoffs with 22 or fewer points after 22 games of a season. Forty-eight previous teams have fit that criteria and all failed. Miami is on 21 points after 23 games. It may take a Messi record or two to get there.