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Will Lionel Messi Take the Field? Sporting KC’s High-Stakes Gamble Draws Mixed Reactions

The Inter Miami versus Sporting KC is just around the corner and Lionel Messi has missed four straight MLS matches. Will the Argentine come to KC?



Credit: Thad Bell

The following is a guest post by University of Kansas journalism student, Emily Baldwin.

Some call it a cash grab, others call it an exposure play. Either way, there’s a very good chance that Lionel Messi is not taking the field in the Inter Miami CF versus Sporting Kansas City match coming to Arrowhead in just a few weeks.

Sporting Kansas City’s decision to move the game to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, announced in January, was met with mixed reviews. Several personalities in the Major League Soccer industry agree that moving the game is still extremely high-risk and could do more harm than good if Lionel Messi doesn’t take to the field come April 13. 

Miami is off to a rocking start tied for second in the Eastern Conference with 11 points, and led by, of course, Lionel Messi. He has played in three out of Miami’s seven MLS regular-season games so far this season and has three goals to show for it. 

Sporting Kansas City sits sixth in the Western Conference with a record of 2-1-3, earning them nine points thus far. 

A point that those in favor of the move have brought up is this game serves as practice ahead of the 2026 World Cup. “It’s a great opportunity to kind of do a dry run… I think it’s a fantastic showcase to get ready for what will be both a big game with Copa in the summer for them, and then as we build into the World Cup,” Sporting Kansas City President and CEO Jake Reid said.

Jimmy Mack isn’t buying it, however. “If they can get 77,000 drunk Chiefs fans into a game eight or nine times a year, if they can do it for college football games, if they can do it for Taylor Swift and Beyonce and whatnot, I’m not concerned about them doing it for the World Cup. It’s not Sporting Kansas City’s responsibility to do it for Arrowhead,” Mack said. Mack is a big Sporting KC fan and one of the hosts for the Kansas City soccer podcast No Other Pod.

The last time Sporting Kansas City took the field at Arrowhead was what MLS Season Pass commentator Nate Bukaty called, “one of the most important days in club history.” If you’re a Sporting, or at the time, Wizards fan, you remember the iconic match versus Manchester United back in 2010 which featured a crowd of over 57,000 fans and a 2-1 win for the Wizards. 

But this isn’t 2010. This is 2024. “Soccer in Kansas City has become pretty mature,” Andrew Wiebe pointed out when discussing the difference between the iconic 2010 game and the upcoming match. Wiebe is currently an analyst and host on MLS Season Pass and has been an MLS fan for years. However, even mature soccer fans know that “when the G.O.A.T. comes, you want to see him,” Wiebe said. And that’s exactly what MLS, Sporting Kansas City and several other clubs are banking on. 

MLS added fuel to the Messi mania fire by sending Inter Miami on a pre-season tour that included over 24,000 miles of travel. “They’re going to milk the Messi cash cow for every cent that it’s worth,” Mack said. Stops in El Salvador, Dallas, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Tokyo put Messi on display for cities around the globe, well, minus Hong Kong. 

However, this travel doesn’t come without a price and that’s what many Sporting KC fans are worried about. There are two terms that attendees of this game solely for Messi are hoping they don’t hear ahead of April 13: load management and injury. 

Load management has become a familiar term in professional sports over the last few years, most notably in the NBA with the recent implementation of rules to avoid excessive load management issues. 

“They’re asking these players to play too many games. There are so many competitions to be involved in now,” Bukaty said. “How do you ask these players to continue to play and not take care of their bodies?”

As Messi approaches his 40s and the end of his career, load management and injuries certainly play a bigger role when determining who takes the field each match for Inter Miami. “The team has to decide, and the coach has to decide, what is the best possible lineup for me to win today, but also to win tomorrow?” Wiebe said. 

The opportunity to pick up three points on the road is always huge as it’s notoriously hard to win on the road in MLS. This usually means that road games are a better time for a player to sit out. Cut your losses on the road and get healthy to play, and hopefully win, at home.

“At the end of the day, it’s their roster, it’s their team. If they decide to sit him, they decide to sit him. I think that’s unlikely given the time of the year and kind of what’s going on but ultimately, we’re hopeful he plays. If he’s hurt or if they decide to sit him then that’s out of our control,” Reid said. 

What Reid didn’t know at the time though is that Inter Miami would be playing a 9:30 p.m. game in Guadalupe, Mexico on April 10, less than 72 hours before the match in Kansas City. 

The match is a part of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in which Messi has taken the field twice, both games against Nashville. Messi sat out the 2-1 home loss to CF Monterrey on Wednesday. Miami next play Monterrey in the second leg of the quarterfinals and will be in a do-or-die situation to propel themselves to the semifinals. A big game to say the least.

With over 1,000 miles of travel required to get from BBVA Estadio to Arrowhead Stadium, the match against Sporting KC seems like a great time for Miami to sit its most prized possession in Lionel Messi. Resting Messi will be especially important considering the semifinals will start just 10 days later if Miami advance past Monterrey. 

If Messi does take the field against all odds, then the challenge is “to get an even wider audience to love Kansas City who also love Messi, as opposed to just bringing them in to wear pink shirts and scream for their idol. How do you expose them to what you are doing in Kansas City, and make them feel more connected to that?” Wiebe said. 

Hopefully for Sporting Kansas City, Messi will take the field, fans witness a sold-out game environment for the ages, Peter Vermes and the team walk away with a win and new Sporting Kansas City fans are born. “In a perfect scenario, I would love for this to turn more people into soccer fans, more people into Sporting Kansas City fans, and I hope that happens. I’m just skeptical that that’s the reality of the situation,” Mack said.

And that’s all that’s left, skepticism. As the game grows closer, the chances of success for Sporting’s business decision increase. But, until Lionel Messi steps onto GEHA Field on April 13, many involved with the decision are likely holding their breath. 

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