COLUMBUS, Ohio — As MLS prepares to wrap up its 28th season Saturday, Commissioner Don Garber on Friday reflected on a year dominated by Lionel Messi’s midseason arrival and looked ahead to the Argentine superstar’s return for a full campaign in 2024.
“Lionel Messi had many options for the next chapter of his iconic soccer-playing career,” Garber said during his state of the league address. “The magnitude of his decision to join MLS cannot be overstated.”
Messi’s impact was felt on the field, where he picked up where he left off in a storied club career that began in Barcelona and passed through Paris before landing with Inter Miami in August. It was also felt off the field, where his presence in the relatively young league boosted marketing power, ticket sales and Apple TV Plus subscriptions.
“The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer because the best player to ever play the game is here,” Garber said. “And he succeeded.”
Less than a year after leading Argentina to the World Cup title, the 36-year-old forward posted 11 goals and eight assists in 14 matches across all competitions and bolstered the fortunes of lowly Inter Miami.
MLS and Apple have declined to release subscription and viewership data, though people familiar with the new 10-year deal said Messi provided a substantial bump. Multiple Miami matches drew more than a million viewers on the pay service, Apple officials have said.
Some matches remain available on standard TV outlets. Saturday’s final between the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles FC will appear on Fox as well as Apple TV Plus.
MLS’s current task regarding Messi is deciding where he will visit in 2024. The 29 teams play most of their 34 regular season games within the conference, which means the other 14 Eastern Conference teams will host Messi and Miami once. This season, Miami’s three nonconference away matches were at Houston, St. Louis and LAFC.
The league will not choose Miami’s nonconference away destinations based solely on market size and potential ticket sales, Garber said. “We don’t think that’s fair,” he added. MLS will create a formula to ensure Messi appears in most, if not all, markets by 2025. Because of the number of teams, though, nonleague matches might figure into the equation.
There is also the issue of sustaining elevated interest in the league after Messi retires; his contract runs through 2025.
“We’ve got to look at it all, including our roster rules, to ensure that, with a growing audience, we can capture the support and the attention of a whole new audience of soccer fans. That’s ultimately the process that we’re going through now,” Garber said. “Is the system we have in place the right system and can we evolve it or tweak it in ways to ensure that we’re capturing the market?”
Aside from Messi, Garber sees the 2026 World Cup, which will take place in the United States, Mexico and Canada, as the primary springboard to greater popularity.
“That is the pressure that we’re under to ensure: As everybody’s paying attention to us, what is the product we can deliver?” Garber said. “Where do we want to be by 2027?”
Fitting into soccer’s congested schedule is another challenge. This year, MLS will balance the regular season, Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup with an international calendar that includes the U.S.-hosted Copa América. The European Championship and Paris Olympics will also cut into MLS’s audience.
The following year, the expanded FIFA Club World Cup will take place in the United States. Then comes the World Cup in 2026.
“We can’t afford” to shut down the league for an extended period in any year, Garber said. “MLS has to deliver for all of our stakeholders. That being said, we’ve got to manage through that process and be clever and creative. … Clearly the World Cup is an entirely different animal — I can’t imagine playing games during the World Cup — but the economic impact of that is significant.”
Among the ideas for 2026 is splitting the season into two parts, like Mexico’s Liga MX does, to clear the summer months, Garber said. Weather, however, would impact many markets in the winter.
“Should we be thinking about playing in a single destination for a period of time during winter months?” Garber said. “Who knows? Maybe that might be the answer.”
Notes: MLS has no plans at this point to expand beyond 30 teams after San Diego enters in 2025, Garber said. “But I’ll say I never say never to anything,” he added. “You’ve got to look at how all this develops over the next number of years.” …
The league will not add a fourth designated player slot for each team, Garber said. The DP roster designation is for high-end players, such as Messi, whose multimillions in earnings count only $650,000 against the salary cap.