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Messi-Ronaldo rivalry is ending, but one between MLS and Saudi Pro League is just beginning

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Lionel Messi and Inter Miami have already played two preseason matches ahead of the 2024 MLS season, the start of which is now less than a month away.

But Year Two of Project Messi really kicks into gear this week. The GOAT and his new-look Herons — striker Luis Suárez arrived in South Florida this winter, joining former Barcelona teammates Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets on Inter’s roster — are in Saudi Arabia to play a pair of friendlies, beginning with Monday’s contest against Al Hilal.

The second is the big one, though. Thursday’s meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr would mark the 37th and final time the best two players of their generation square off if Ronaldo is available.  It remains to be seen if he’ll be recovered from the minor injury that has forced Al-Nassr to reschedule a pair of matches in China, but the appeal of that matchup is obvious if Ronaldo can participate. 

Yet beyond the Messi-Ronaldo storyline lurks perhaps an even more interesting subplot. These two games can also be viewed as a battle for bragging rights between two of Planet Futbol’s fastest growing circuits. 

Neither MLS nor the Saudi Pro League can be considered among the global elite right now. The Big Five in Europe — England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Germany’s Bundesliga and La Liga in Spain — still dominate.

But MLS sent more players to the 2022 World Cup than any league outside the Big Five. One of them was Messi’s compatriot, Thiago Almada, who became the first active MLS player to win soccer’s ultimate prize.

Meantime, Saudi Arabia’s entirely Pro League-based national squad was the lone team to beat the Albiceleste in Qatar. Al Hilal is the most successful club in the history of Asia’s Champions League, and has won two of its record four titles since 2019. Both countries have home World Cups in the near future, which will up the profile of both league, too. The U.S. will host the 2026 tournament with neighbors Canada and Mexico. Eight years later, the Saudis will for the first time stage the biggest event in sports.

In the club game, MLS and the Saudi Pro League are already the best of the rest when it comes to potential and to pure star power. Backed by the oil-rich country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Saudis successfully lured Ronaldo to the kingdom in early 2023, and a slew of other stars followed him there last summer. Brazilian headliner Neymar, who played with Messi at both Barca and Paris Saint-Germain, joined Al Hilal, though Neymar’s torn ACL will prevent a reunion with Messi on Monday.  UEFA Champions League winners Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho signed on with reigning champs Al Ittihad. 

Messi was also high on the Saudi’s wish list. Instead, he turned down a deal worth an ungodly $500-million-plus per season to take his talents to South Beach. MLS has drawn living legends throughout its almost 30-year history, of course, most famously current Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham. 

Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo: One Last Time | SOTU

But the league in recent years has mostly bucked that trend, preferring to be a stepping stone for up-and-coming South Americans like Almada who can be flipped to Europe for a handsome profit a few years later.

Established name-brand stars are still clearly a main selling point for both leagues, though, and the key to increasing their popularity outside their own borders.

It will still be fascinating to see how these leagues stack up beyond their biggest names. Fair or not, this week serves as a referendum for both.

“The Saudi league is better than MLS,” Ronaldo said shortly before Messi’s debut in Fort Lauderdale last July. Now his league has the chance to prove it — if it can. 

Ronaldo also claimed recently that the Pro League is stronger than France’s top division, a take clearly untethered to reality. Last September, British analytics firm Opta Sports ranked the relative strength of thousands of clubs from 413 leagues across 183 FIFA member countries. On average, the Saudi Pro League finished 27th. MLS placed 15th. Ligue 1 was fifth.

What’s certain is that Al Hilal and Al-Nassr will be determined to put their best feet forward against Inter Miami. Playing at home, in front of their own fans, ought to help. So should the visitors’ grueling itinerary in the lead-in: the Herons traveled to El Salvador and Dallas in the week before boarding its 15-hour, 7,500-mile charter flight to Riyadh late Thursday night.

Inter Miami has plenty to prove in Saudi Arabia, too. Messi couldn’t prevent his new club from missing the MLS Cup playoffs last season — Miami had the the league’s worst record before he arrived. But with him, Alba, Busquets and Suarez all available from Day 1, they’re considered a legit title contender in 2024.

Miami still didn’t win or even score in either of its first two tuneups, losing to FC Dallas a few days after settling for a scoreless tie with the Salvadoran national team. The pressure is on already. 

So expect two close, hard-fought contests this week, hopefully capped by one last and rightfully celebrated Messi-Ronaldo meeting. That rivalry is coming to an end. The one between MLS and the Saudi Pro League is only just beginning.

If Lionel Messi wins MLS Cup, is it good or bad for MLS? | SOTU

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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