Whether or not he appears at Soldier Field, Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi will give the Fire a boost. What happens afterward will determine if it was a blip or a key point in the franchise’s rebirth.
The game Wednesday night is one of the most anticipated regular-season events in Fire history. Even though it’s a midweek game — weekend games have better attendance — the matchup is expected to draw one of the biggest crowds in Fire and MLS history. The Fire hope the game can turn casual soccer fans eager to see Messi into supporters of their club who will turn out for games that don’t feature the greatest soccer player of all time and some of his old pals from Barcelona.
Making those people Fire fans will come down to more than a one-night engagement with Messi. But Messi joining MLS has been a boon for the league, something that could benefit the Fire in ways besides goosing their average attendance.
Under owner Joe Mansueto, the Fire haven’t done much winning. If they reach the playoffs this season (for the first time in his four full seasons of ownership), it will be as one of the lowest Eastern Conference seeds in the first year of an expanded postseason format. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Fire have gone through two permanent coaches and are expected to look for another before the 2024 season kicks off.
One thing the Fire have done is spend Mansueto’s money. The Fire have invested in the club’s infrastructure and paid for improvements to SeatGeek Stadium’s training facilities, and they’re spending heavily on the new, albeit controversial, practice center.
Of course, they’ve been eager to write checks to help the first team, even if many of their expenditures haven’t worked out. Xherdan Shaqiri is one of the league’s highest-paid players ever, and the Fire haven’t been afraid to open their wallets for designated players and others a tier under who require targeted allocation money.
With Messi in Miami, money is flowing, and there’s speculation MLS will add a fourth DP spot for teams to use, along with loosening some of the league’s restrictive salary regulations. Mansueto has argued for liberalizing some of the league’s rules, and it would be surprising if he didn’t try to take advantage if MLS relaxes its bylaws.
Regardless, Mansueto and the Fire should find a new sporting director who can identify and recruit top-end talent. Current sporting director Georg Heitz has attempted to swim in that deep water but hasn’t succeeded, and it’s hard to see him coming back for a fifth season to get yet another try.
A shrewd sporting director combined with Mansueto’s money and passion to win has the chance to transform the Fire. If Mansueto is allowed to splash more cash thanks to Messi’s presence in MLS, the Fire’s chances would increase further.
If they’re successful and capitalize on the Messi-era MLS, the Fire won’t need a visiting player to bring in new customers.