It’s not often that the circles of a Major League Baseball team and a Major League Soccer club intertwine on the Venn Diagram but this weekend will see the New York Mets and New York Red Bulls do just that.
In one weekend, two of the greatest athletes on the planet — two transcendental superstars who have children already preparing the stories that they’ll tell their grandchildren about seeing them play live — will ply their trade for a limited time only in the New York City area.
Los Angeles Angels two-way star, Shohei Ohtani, a player whom the game of baseball has not seen since Babe Ruth, makes his Citi Field debut for a three-game set beginning Friday as the Mets host the AL West side beginning Friday night.
Just over 20 miles west on Saturday night in Harrison, NJ, Lionel Messi — arguably the greatest soccer player of all time — makes his MLS debut with Inter Miami against the Red Bulls where he’ll set the American soccer world ablaze.
Even members of the Red Bulls will have to compose themselves so as to not dawdle in being starstruck.
“It’ll be pretty crazy looking across the field and seeing Messi,” Red Bulls All-Star defender and US international John Tolkin said. “I don’t care how hard it is. That’s just a dream come true. I’m super excited, and I can’t wait. It’s going be super cool.”
Experience aside, the Mets and Red Bulls certainly won’t mind taking in the gate receipts and some of the attention that comes with hosting such monumental talents. But both teams appear to be at a crossroads.
The Mets with their billionaire owner Steve Cohen were once considered the hands-down favorites to sign Ohtani when he hits free agency this winter; his Angels career is all but likely over after another late-summer nosedive that took them out of playoff contention.
But New York’s spectacular failure that was the four months between April and July forced Cohen and general manager Billy Eppler to disband the most expensive team in baseball history, sell off most of its veteran, expiring contracts, and push their World Series hopes to 2025 or 2026.
Suddenly, the Mets don’t appear as though they’ll be the big fish on the free-agent market this winter as they were the previous two offseasons, as Cohen alluded to when recounting his conversation with Max Scherzer on the direction of the team before trading him to the Texas Rangers.
“Max asked me straight: ‘Are you going to be all-in on free agency next year?’” Cohen said. “And I couldn’t give him that promise. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to bring in free agents. It may not be to the extent that we did in the past because I’m carrying a lot of dead money.”
Instead, they’re going to balance getting the pieces they need at more of a bargain in free agency before tapping into the pipeline that they seemingly boosted overnight at the trade deadline to start building a winner through the farm system.
Such a concept isn’t unfamiliar to the Red Bulls, who were one of the first teams in MLS to alter the landscape of American soccer when they brought in French legend Thierry Henry in 2010. Across his five seasons with the club, New York finished in the top four of MLS three times.
But since his departure, the Red Bulls have slashed their payroll while showing an unwillingness to make legitimate runs at signing international stars looking to make the jump to the United States. Things, however, didn’t start to take a significant downturn after the exit of Bradley Wright-Phillips — an English striker who came up through the Manchester City ranks.
Since 2019, they’ve finished higher than sixth place in the Eastern Conference just once, and it’s pretty easy to see why. They have had the lowest payroll in MLS from 2021-2022 and have the league’s third-lowest payroll this season, per Capology, despite their owning conglomerate, Red Bull GmbH, being worth roughly $18.5 billion. Meanwhile, the rest of the league continues to pass them by, especially with last-place Inter Miami about to go on a tear with Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba joining its ranks.
Apparently, the philosophy at Red Bull Arena is going to change, at least according to general manager Marc de Grandpré.
“I can tell you that, next year, we’re going to make a significant investment into our roster to make sure that we can compete at the highest level in MLS consistently,” he said (h/t ROI-NJ.com). “There’s no doubt that we’re going to.
“You’re going to see a lot more investment coming from us, targeting players from all over the world again, with the hope that we can bolster our roster and really giving our fans something to get excited about for next season.”
Red Bulls fans don’t appear to be holding their breath but for now, the only way they’ll get to see some of the world’s best players is if they’re coming out of the visitor’s locker room.