All you need to know about Major League Soccer 2024 and its Messi mania

The Messi effect, biggest players, league breakdown and everything else you need to know about Major League Soccer.

Lionel Messi will look to land more trophies for Inter Miami in his first full season with the club [File: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP]By Kevin HandPublished On 20 Feb 202420 Feb 2024

The new Major League Soccer season is set to get under way in North America with the spotlight shining brightly on one man: Lionel Messi.

Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain joined David Beckham’s MLS club, Inter Miami, in the middle of the US’s regular football season last year and delivered instant results.

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What records and awards does Lionel Messi hold?

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The club won the first match Messi played after a streak of 10 winless games and, what’s more, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner landed the side its first trophy – the Leagues Cup.

Messi and his former Barcelona teammates Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, have transformed the team in a matter of months.

Now, with Messi fully established as the centrepiece and playing his first full campaign for the club’s fourth year of existence, Miami will be eyeing the big prize: a first MLS Cup.

The 29-team championship gets under way on February 22, when Miami host Salt Lake City at the DRK PNV Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming MLS season:

Who are the biggest names in MLS?

Inter Miami: Inter Miami brought Messi mania to the MLS for the end of their last season and the Qatar World Cup 2022 winner arrived in a media whirlwind.

Soon, Messi’s good friend Suarez was signed in the off-season to bolster the team’s ranks. The Uruguayan has set out his motive for joining the club: “to try to win [the] MLS”. Busquets, Alba and Paraguayan midfielder Diego Gomez complete Miami’s star-studded lineup.

Columbus Crew: The defending champions are led in attack by Columbian star Cucho Hernandez. He scored 16 goals and produced seven assists last season.

Atlanta United: Thiago Almada, who was part of Messi’s World Cup-winning team in 2022, is central to Atlanta United’s hopes. The midfielder scored 13 goals in his 35 appearances last season.

Chicago Fire: Belgian striker Hugo Cuypers was a club-record $12m signing for the Eastern Conference side, where Switzerland international and former Liverpool forward Xherdan Shaqiri netted seven goals last season.

Toronto FC: Lorenzo Insigne is the Canadian club’s star name. The winger won the last of his 54 caps for Italy in their failed World Cup qualification bid in 2022 and moved to Canada the same year following a 15-year career with Napoli.

Los Angeles FC: French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris moved to the West Coast from Tottenham Hotspur in January, ending an 11-year association with the London club.

How has Messi transformed the MLS?

Inter Miami’s managing owner Jorge Mas termed the player’s arrival a “seminal moment” for the sport in the US last year.

Meanwhile, MLS Commissioner Don Garber believes Messi’s presence will “put MLS on a different trajectory.”

“And who knows what that’s going to look like years from now? But certainly, we’re in a different position today than we had been, with Messi in our league.”

If numbers provided by Garber are anything to go by this season, MLS season ticket sales have seen a 15 percent increase, league sponsorship revenue is up by 17 percent, club revenue has received a 15 percent boost and merchandise sales have shot up by 44 percent.

Shirts of Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are displayed for sale outside the Cuscatlan stadium prior to a friendly match between El Salvador’s national team and Inter Miami in San Salvador, El Salvador on January 19, 2024 [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

What are conferences?

The 29 teams are broken into two conferences to reduce travel. The Eastern Conference features 15 teams, and 14 are in the Western Conference.

Which teams are in the conferences?

Eastern Conference: Atlatana FC, CF Montreal, Charlotte FC, Chicago Fire FC, Columbus Crew, DC United, FC Cincinnati, FC Inter Miami, Nashville SC, New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City SC, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC.

Western Conference: Austin FC, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamos FC, LA Galaxy, Los Angeles FC, Minnesota United FC, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, St Louis City SC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

What is up for grabs in the North American season?

The Eastern and Western Conferences will primarily play for two titles in the MLS.

The overall leader from the two groups is awarded the Supporters’ Shield, while the winners of the end-of-season playoffs will lift the MLS Cup.

The Leagues Cup, which is a knockout competition also available to clubs from Mexico’s Liga MX, offers teams another route to the continental club competition CONCACAF Champions Cup.

This has already been a happy hunting ground for Messi and Miami, as the Argentinian helped the Florida-based team to lift the revamped tournament last season to qualify for the prestigious Champions Cup.

Miami will enter that tournament in the last-16 stage in March and will vie for a place at the expanded FIFA 2025 Club World Cup set to be hosted in the US.

The US Open Cup is the fifth crown that Messi can challenge for with Miami this season and is another knockout competition but this one is open to clubs outside the MLS conferences in both the US and Canada. Houston beat Miami in the final last season.

FC Cincinnati were winners of the Eastern Conference, as well as the Supporters Shield, while St Louis City finished atop the Western Conference in the team’s first season.

Lionel Messi guided Inter Miami to the Leagues Cup Championship win last year [File: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports]

Who are the favourites?

Inter Miami’s spending spree and the capture of Messi will mount pressure on them to challenge in all competition this season, but they have their work cut out having finished 27th out of 29 teams last season.

With the late addition of Rossi to their ranks last season, it’s hard to look past defending champions Columbus Crew who also have MLS’s MVP for 2023 Hernandez.

Almada helped Atlanta top their conference last year but the club’s fans will be desperately concerned about the growing interest in the forward from across the Atlantic, especially when the transfer window opens in the mid-year.

LAFC have been heavily overshadowing their neighbours, and five-time record MLS winners, LA Galaxy in recent years and were denied back-to-back MLS crowns in last year’s final by Columbus.

They do have Lloris in goal this season to bolster them, while Denis Bouanga, who has scored seven goals in 35 internationals for Gabon, is the main focus at the other end of the pitch.

Who are the past winners?

LA Galaxy: 2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014

DC United: 1996, 1997,1999, 2004

Columbus Crew: 2008, 2020, 2023

Sporting Kansas City: 2000, 2013

San Jose Earthquakes: 2001, 2003

Houston Dynamo: 2006, 2007

Seattle Sounders: 2016, 2019

Chicago Fire, Portland Timbers, Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, LAFC, Atlanta United FC and New York City FC all have one title to their names.

What is going on with the referees this season?

MLS is in the middle of a labour dispute with its referees.

The Professional Referees Organisation (PRO), which manages MLS referees, announced on Saturday that it will lock out match officials after they rejected a proposed collective bargaining agreement just days before the start of the season.

PRO said it had reached a tentative agreement last weekend with the Professional Soccer Referees Association. But the union said nearly 96 percent of its members voted to reject it.

That means there will likely be replacement refs officiating matches for the foreseeable future.

Source: Al Jazeera