July 16, 2023, will be a date forever remembered for transforming where the United States sits in the global soccer hierarchy.
On that date, Lionel Messi, the world’s biggest soccer star, was officially introduced as the newest member of MLS’s Inter Miami. In that moment, American soccer stepped to the forefront of the world’s game in a way it never had before.
Want an idea of the kind of impact Messi’s arrival had, purely from a cultural standpoint? Before the news broke in June of Messi’s imminent arrival, Inter Miami had 1 million followers on Instagram. Today, the club has more than 15 million. That’s three times as many as any NFL team.
This is the magnitude of Messi’s arrival. And you know what? One of the individuals responsible for engineering that epochal shift is one of our own.
Everett native Chris Henderson, who is Inter Miami’s chief soccer officer and sporting director, had a hand in bringing Messi to the U.S. and transforming American soccer forever.
“It’s been a dream of our club and ownership to be able to bring in Messi,” Henderson, who oversees Miami’s soccer operations, said when reached last week. “To have it all fall into place this summer has been fantastic. It’s been a long road for our club and required a lot of maneuvering to get into this position. But it’s been great. Messi is the best player on the planet, and for him to come to our club and be a part of MLS is great for the sport.”
There’s only one word to describe Messi: icon. The 36-year-old forward from Argentina is the all-time leading goal scorer in Spain’s La Liga, netting 474 times in 520 matches with Barcelona from 2004-21. He’s won the Balon d’Or as the world’s top player a record seven times. In December he finally lifted the one trophy that had eluded him as he led Argentina to the 2022 World Cup championship. Time Magazine dubbed Messi one of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2023.
And it was Snohomish County’s son who helped make it happen.
Henderson, who graduated from Cascade High School in 1989, is the greatest soccer player ever produced by the county, with a 12-season professional career and 73 caps for the U.S. national team. He went on to help build Seattle Sounders FC into the model MLS franchise during his 13 years as the team’s technical director and sporting director, before being hired away by Inter Miami in 2021.
But for all his previous accomplishments, Henderson’s lasting legacy is now being part of the group that brought Messi to the States.
Henderson was mum on his specific role in recruiting Messi, and rumors of the Miami ownership group’s big ambitions — a group headlined by former soccer superstar David Beckham — began during the team’s inaugural season in 2020, prior to Henderson being brought on board.
But Henderson was there when Miami hired Tata Martino, Messi’s former manager at both Barcelona and the Argentine national team, as head coach. He was there when Inter brought in Messi’s longtime former teammates at Barcelona in midfield maestro Sergio Busquets and marauding fullback Jordi Alba. And someone had to make all the numbers work within MLS’s salary rules.
“What I can tell you is that leading up to this summer’s transfer window, we had to move a lot of pieces and free up some (designated player) spots,” Henderson said. “We had to get enough allocation money to make our budget work. It took a lot of preparation over two or three transfer windows to get to this point, and we were able to make this dream come true.
“I think it was always a vision and a dream for the owners, to try and move soccer forward in this country and change the way people look at our league and club,” Henderson added. “Instantly overnight we’ve become a global club. I think the owners were optimistic all the way through. Credit to them for persevering and staying with it.”
How good has Messi been since landing in Miami? Well, before Messi arrived Inter was dead last among 29 teams in the MLS standings. After Messi debuted on July 21 — when he scored the game-winning goal on a free kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time — Miami went 11-0-1 and lifted the Leagues Cup before finally losing last Saturday to Atlanta United in a game where Messi was rested. In 11 appearances Messi has recorded an astounding 11 goals and eight assists, and Inter inexplicably could still sneak into an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Henderson knew how good Messi was before he arrived. If anything, Messi’s been even better than Henderson expected.
“He’s amazing,” Henderson said. “He clearly is the best player I’ve ever seen. He’s an incredible leader, his leadership has blown me away. That’s why he has a World Cup. He’s just amazing to be around, and he thinks about the club and the team. That’s so important for success.”
And how does Henderson feel about being a part of bringing Messi to America?
“It’s been amazing to be part of this club and the ambition,” Henderson said. “That is part of the reason why I left Seattle, to be part of something that could really change soccer in this country forever. It’s been an amazing journey, and every day something special happens when you have players of that level. To see the growth of our club and the changes to our league in just a month-and-a-half, and to be able to compete for trophies and tournaments in the style in which the team plays now, it’s fun to be part of.”
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.