Ashley Westwood says Lionel Messi’s impact in Major League Soccer has been “incredible” and believes enthusiasm for the sport in the USA is growing beyond expectation following his move to Charlotte FC.
The 33-year-old midfielder came up against Messi’s Inter Miami in the Leagues Cup quarter-final in August where the Argentina international found the net in a 4-0 win, one of the 11 goals in 11 matches he has registered since his arrival in the Sunshine State.
Messi, alongside Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, helped David Beckham’s club to win that competition and also to an Open Cup final, underlining the hype and excitement that accompanied his signing in the summer transfer window.
Westwood told Sky Sports: “The whole thing he’s brought to the MLS has been incredible, I’ve played against some unbelievable players in the Premier League but even at his age he’s still the greatest I’ve ever faced.
“Sergio Busquets in midfield as well, he just sees things that others don’t. Without Busquets, I think Messi would find it a little bit harder but he’s got Busquets in midfield to find him with every pass.
“To play against him was a real honour but he got the best of us so hopefully we’ll do a job when he comes to us!”
Charlotte were founded as an MLS club just three years ago by businessman and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and they groundshare with the NFL side at the Bank of America Stadium which sees regular attendances of 35,000 to 40,000 for MLS fixtures.
Westwood shares a dressing room with ex-Burnley and Rangers winger Scott Arfield as well as former Derby and Wigan right-back Nathan Byrne and Polish duo Kamil Jozwiak and Karol Swiderski.
The Charlotte skipper admits he was “surprised” by the level of football in the MLS and feels his Premier League experience of 286 appearances for Burnley and Aston Villa across 10 seasons is going to be beneficial for the squad.
Westwood said: “It’s been incredible, everything I expected and more. The stadiums, the standard of football, it’s phenomenal and took me by surprise.
“They’re doing a great job out here and they’ve got the World Cup here in a few years so it’s definitely on the rise. The amount of young kids I see around playing at all the soccer camps, it’s grown really, really fast.
“Nate (Nathan Byrne), Andy Quy (assistant coach), and Aron Hyde (goalkeeping coach) are all English and Scott Arfield too, and the American lads are unbelievable and are so professional. The way they conduct themselves, you can tell they have been well brought up through the college system.
“To be given the armband, I didn’t expect it but it was a real privilege to lead this club, it’s a massive club as well. I’m truly honoured and I want to stay here for the long future and have a big part in it, it’s so new.
“The young lads (in the squad) always ask what certain players in the Premier League are like and they’ve followed it all their lives and it’s nice to give them some insight into the Premier League, they absolutely love it.”
Westwood, who took over from Christian Fuchs as the club’s captain earlier this year, swapped Lancashire for North Carolina in January and feels he has rejuvenated his career stateside after seeing the end of his time with Burnley blighted by a long-term ankle injury.
He added: “It’s probably taken me about 18 months to get fully back to where I was and it’s only been about two months that I’ve felt back to my best.
“I was in a really bad place, it was a horrendous injury. I’d never had an injury, the most I’d been out for was 10 days with a muscle strain.
“Nick McCarthy, the physio at Burnley, kept me going, a big shout out to him. I think I even drove him crazy but he got me through.
“When the move to Charlotte came about it gave me a new lease of life, a new challenge and an adventure. As a family we’d always talked about playing abroad and to come to America I’ve fully enjoyed and embraced it.
“I still feel like I can play forever, I still feel like I’m 20 again. It’s been the best thing that’s happened to me.
“It took me a while but I got there in the end, for me it’s the intensity of the league with the intensity, it’s non-stop and anyone can beat anyone. You’ve got the ‘DPs’ (Designated Players). It’s a tough league but I’m really enjoying it, the family are too and we’re embracing every second.”
Westwood’s arrival at Charlotte also coincided with a tragedy the club are still reeling from after defender Anton Walkes died in a boating accident before the start of the season.
He added: “We had a tough start, we had a tragedy in pre-season and it still upsets everyone. I don’t think we’ll ever get over it, we take him everywhere we go.
“He’s all over the changing room, he’s on every shirt. His girlfriend and children are still a big part of things at the club and the wives and girlfriends have brought her in and that’s what it’s all about we’re creating a family club here.”
On the club’s form, Westwood said: “We’re slowly starting to perform, the way we started in the Leagues Cup was good we were doing round trips to Dallas and it was sort of the catalyst for our season.
“The last three games we’ve dominated, we dominated LA Galaxy, and we did well at home against Orlando. We’re getting there, we’re not far off the play-offs. We have a tough game this Saturday against DC United and if we win that we put ourselves in a great position.”
Westwood’s former club come up against Nottingham Forest, live on Monday Night Football, following defeats to Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham following their promotion back to the top-flight.
Despite Burnley’s poor start to life back in the Premier League, he is backing former manager Vincent Kompany to avoid relegation this term and regather themselves to continue the success after last season’s romp towards the Championship title.
Westwood said: “The Premier League games are in the morning here because we’re five hours behind so when I wake up I put the Prem games on.
“Vincent Kompany has done an incredible job, he’s been incredible with me with letting me come out here. He was hoping I was going to play but I wanted a new challenge and he was great with that.
“They’ve had a tough start, I watched their game against Man City and thought they were excellent and deserved a lot more. It’s one of those things in football, City have got unbelievable players that can put on a show.
“I think Burnley will be all right, the Premier League is a different animal and you can get easily punished but I hope they can build on the great season they had last year by trying to survive and then build again.
“His aura, he’s an incredible man and a great human being. The work he’s done and the way he’s got them playing has been phenomenal.
“I was there taking my boy for academy training at Burnley and Vinny was still there working at 10pm at night he doesn’t switch off so he certainly puts the work in that people don’t see and hopefully he gets rewarded with that.”