Major League Soccer Launches with Inter Miami, Putting Lionel Messi & Co. in the Limelight.

Messi Mania returns to Major League Soccer as Lionel Messi embarks on his first full season with Inter Miami.

But this year, there´s a twist.

Inter Miami signed Luis Suarez in the offseason, reuniting the two close friends. The pair, along with former Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, have made Miami THE team to watch heading into the Major League Soccer’s 29th season.

 

“Inter Miami offered me a nice opportunity to dream of winning the club´s first MLS title, to play with big players, who everybody knows, and adapt to my new team and club,” Suarez said. “I am motivated by that challenge.”

But with Messi, Suarez and the rest of Inter Miami set to open the season at home on Wednesday night against Real Salt Lake, MLS is in the middle of a labor dispute with its referees.

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

Inter Miami forwards Luis Suarez, left, and Lionel Messi, right, arrive for a friendly soccer match against Newell’s Old Boys, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

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

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

The lockout casts a shadow on the start of an intriguing MLS year. Messi will have a full season to work his magic. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner arrived in Miami midway through last season, boosting ticket sales, jersey sales and Apple TV (the league’s media partner) subscriptions.

He helped Miami to a trophy in the first season of the Leagues Cup tournament with Liga MX. But he couldn’t quite make enough difference to push the team into the playoffs after Miami’s slow start. Miami finished 9-18-7 last season, in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

While Miami has the celebrities, the Columbus Crew showed last season they have the skills, winning the MLS Cup final 2-1. The Crew have their own star in Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez, a game changer who was named the championship game’s MVP.

In addition to Suarez, the league welcomed some other big international names in the offseason, including Bundesliga veteran Emil Forsberg, who was signed by the New York Red Bulls, French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris with LAFC, Croatian forward Petar Musa with Dallas, and Belgian forward Hugo Cuypers with Chicago.

While Suarez is 37 and his knees are giving him more trouble, he still had 27 goals and 17 assists with Brazilian club Gremio last season. He’ll play with Messi, Alba and Busquets for the first time since all four were with Barcelona in the 2019-20 season.

“One of the motivations for me coming here was to reunite with them,” Suarez said after his first practice in Miami. “But more than anything, we are very ambitious, very professional and we are committed to showing the young talented Inter Miami players that your age doesn´t matter, what matters is the commitment you have on and off the field.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber outlined some of the league’s successes in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

Season ticket sales are up 15% this season over the same time last year, overall league sponsorship revenue is up 17% while club revenue is up 15%, and merchandise sales are up 44% over this time last year.

Is that the “Messi Effect?” Absolutely. It’s a sign that MLS is becoming a destination league.

“I think that this will put MLS on a different trajectory that started when Beckham came to MLS and had us part of the global conversation,” Garber said about Messi’s stint in the league. “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.”

FILE – Inter Miami’s Luis Suarez controls the ball during the first half of a preseason friendly MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Jan. 22, 2024, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Messi Mania returns to Major League Soccer as Lionel Messi embarks on his first full season with Inter Miami. But this year, there is a twist. The team signed Suarez in the offseason, reuniting the two close friends.

FILE – Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber speaks during a ceremony honoring Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Or trophy, before Inter Miami’s club friendly soccer match against New York City FC, Nov. 10, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Garber outlined the MLS’ successes in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

FILE – Argentina’s Thiago Almada, right, controls the ball while pursued by Uruguay’s Fredy Martínez, left, during South America’s under-23 pre-Olympic tournament soccer match at Misael Delgado stadium in Valencia, Venezuela, Feb. 2, 2024. The MLS is a proving ground for young international players., including the reigning Young Player of the Year, Atlanta United’s Almada, who was on Argentina’s winning 2022 World Cup squad and is just 22.

FILE – FC Cincinnati midfielder Luciano Acosta, right, controls the ball during the first half of the team’s U.S. Open Cup soccer semifinal against Inter Miami, Aug. 23, 2023, in Cincinnati. Acosta was named the MLS’ Most Vlauable Player with 17 goals and 14 assists. He also won Goal of the Year for his clinical right-footed goal against Charlotte after running through a series of defenders.

FILE – Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) controls the ball during the second half of a Leagues Cup soccer match against Cruz Azul, July 21, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Messi Mania returns to Major League Soccer as Messi embarks on his first full season with Inter Miami.

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