For years, the likelihood of Cristiano Ronaldo coming to Major League Soccer was high. It was a natural fit for the Portuguese who fit the framework for a popular athlete in the United States. That did not happen, as Ronaldo opted for the Saudi Pro League. Instead, Lionel Messi, his individual rival, joined Inter Miami to grow his profile in North America. Failing to land Ronaldo is a major missed opportunity for Major League Soccer, regardless of whether Messi came to the league.

The reason it is a missed opportunity is because of Ronaldo’s proclivity for stardom. Ronaldo and Messi are opposites when it comes to how they interact with the media. Take Lionel Messi’s stint with Inter Miami. He has only been available for two press conferences for the South Florida club, and his lack of media availability has several beat reporters for the club frustrated. By comparison, Ronaldo never backs down from an interview. Oftentimes, that can be frustrating for the club, as seen with his interview with Piers Morgan that contributed to his exit from Manchester United. Then, he made comments that directly targeted MLS when fans compared Ronaldo’s Saudi Arabia move to Messi joining Inter Miami.

“No, because in Arabia, the competition is much better than in the United States,” Ronaldo said about the prospect of ever joining MLS. Now, say what you will about the professionalism of speaking to the media out of turn and haranguing other leagues or players. Ronaldo has a way of getting people to talk about the league. As a result, people would watch and tune in to see Ronaldo in action. It is a largely American way of going about things to be loud, but that has benefited other sports in the United States. Perhaps Major League Soccer could have taken advantage as well.

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Ronaldo could have brought MLS more star power

In addition to interviews with reporters, Ronaldo would not shy away from being a spokesperson for the league. Major League Soccer and Apple have made Messi a focal point for promoting the league and MLS Season Pass, the league’s streaming service. The company created a documentary series focusing on his arrival in the United States. Also, Messi features heavily in the league’s preview of the 2024 campaign, his first full season in Major League Soccer.

Social media, such as where that preview featured, plays a major role in spreading the popularity of soccer leagues. It would be foolish to say MLS should have gone after Ronaldo because he has more followers. That all too easily plays into the trope that MLS just wants popular players. Yet, Ronaldo’s activity on Instagram or X cannot be ignored. With over 100 million more followers than Messi, Ronaldo is regularly posting content about training or games with Al-Nassr. Messi, who is equally reserved on social media like his time with the media, does not post as often. Moreover, his content is paid partnerships with his sponsors instead of just showing the side in action.

Apple would have certainly benefited in its global streaming deal to all MLS games with Ronaldo in the fold. The Saudi Pro League does not have the ease of access that MLS has for a worldwide audience. Ronaldo commanding a broader fan base online could have helped the league achieve higher numbers.

Ronaldo not coming to the United States is not terrible for the league

By the time Ronaldo’s contract with Al-Nassr expires, he will be 40 years old. Despite the physical magnificence the Portuguese possesses, he will not be the same Ronaldo who dominated with Manchester United and Real Madrid. The star’s omission from the league could be a major what-if for the league.

Having Messi in the league is not a bad result either. Not only can MLS say it has arguably the greatest soccer player of all time. The league took advantage of landing the star just months after he won the World Cup. The league has brought in World Cup winners in years past. Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and others won the World Cup years before joining MLS. The key difference with Messi is that he won the award as the tournament’s best player. Consequently, he won the Ballon d’Or in 2023 as a player for Inter Miami. Fittingly, the club and league celebrated the achievement.

Looking at the negatives, Ronaldo also has a reputation in the United States. Allegations of rape steered the star away from the United States. Judges ultimately dismissed that case, but the star’s feelings toward coming to the United States had not changed. While he was with Juventus, the Italian side did not play in the United States so authorities would not detain Ronaldo. That has since fallen by the wayside, but the aura still lingers.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that Ronaldo speaks fluent English, and is the type of individual who is a lot more comfortable in the public eye. Messi is an introvert. When it comes to selling MLS to mainstream America, Messi can only work his magic on the field. In American sports, that isn’t enough.


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