The brand new Major League Soccer season is ready to get underneath manner in North America with the highlight shining brightly on one man: Lionel Messi.

Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain joined David Beckham’s MLS membership, Inter Miami, in the midst of the US’s common soccer season final yr and delivered prompt outcomes.

The membership received the primary match Messi performed after a streak of 10 winless video games and, what’s extra, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner landed the facet its first trophy – the Leagues Cup.

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

Now, with Messi totally established because the centrepiece and enjoying his first full marketing campaign for the membership’s fourth yr of existence, Miami might be eyeing the massive prize: a primary MLS Cup.

The 29-team championship will get underneath manner on February 22, when Miami host Salt Lake Metropolis on the DRK PNV Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

Right here’s what that you must know concerning the upcoming MLS season:

Who’re the most important names in MLS?

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

Quickly, Messi’s good good friend Suarez was signed within the low season to bolster the workforce’s ranks. The Uruguayan has set out his motive for becoming a member of the membership: “to attempt to win [the] MLS”. Busquets, Alba and Paraguayan midfielder Diego Gomez full Miami’s star-studded lineup.

Columbus Crew: The defending champions are led in assault by Columbian star Cucho Hernandez. He scored 16 objectives and produced seven assists final season.

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

Chicago Fireplace: Belgian striker Hugo Cuypers was a club-record $12m signing for the Jap Convention facet, the place Switzerland worldwide and former Liverpool ahead Xherdan Shaqiri netted seven objectives final season.

Toronto FC: Lorenzo Insigne is the Canadian membership’s star title. The winger received the final of his 54 caps for Italy of their failed World Cup qualification bid in 2022 and moved to Canada the identical yr following a 15-year profession with Napoli.

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

How has Messi reworked the MLS?

Inter Miami’s managing proprietor Jorge Mas termed the participant’s arrival a “seminal second” for the game within the US final yr.

In the meantime, MLS Commissioner Don Garber believes Messi’s presence will “put MLS on a distinct trajectory.”

“And who is aware of what that’s going to appear like years from now? However actually, we’re in a distinct place at present than we had been, with Messi in our league.”

If numbers offered by Garber are something to go by this season, MLS season ticket gross sales have seen a 15 p.c improve, league sponsorship income is up by 17 p.c, membership income has acquired a 15 p.c enhance and merchandise gross sales have shot up by 44 p.c.

Shirts of Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are displayed on the market exterior the Cuscatlan stadium previous to a pleasant match between El Salvador’s nationwide workforce and Inter Miami in San Salvador, El Salvador on January 19, 2024 [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

What are conferences?

The 29 groups are damaged into two conferences to cut back journey. The Jap Convention options 15 groups, and 14 are within the Western Convention.

Which groups are within the conferences?

Jap Convention: Atlatana FC, CF Montreal, Charlotte FC, Chicago Fireplace FC, Columbus Crew, DC United, FC Cincinnati, FC Inter Miami, Nashville SC, New England Revolution, New York Metropolis FC, New York Purple Bulls, Orlando Metropolis SC, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC.

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

What’s up for grabs within the North American season?

The Jap and Western Conferences will primarily play for 2 titles within the MLS.

The general chief from the 2 teams is awarded the Supporters’ Protect, whereas the winners of the end-of-season playoffs will elevate the MLS Cup.

The Leagues Cup, which is a knockout competitors additionally out there to golf equipment from Mexico’s Liga MX, provides groups one other path to the continental membership competitors CONCACAF Champions Cup.

This has already been a contented looking floor for Messi and Miami, because the Argentinian helped the Florida-based workforce to elevate the revamped match final season to qualify for the distinguished Champions Cup.

Miami will enter that match within the last-16 stage in March and can vie for a spot on the expanded FIFA 2025 Membership World Cup set to be hosted within the US.

The US Open Cup is the fifth crown that Messi can problem for with Miami this season and is one other knockout competitors however this one is open to golf equipment exterior the MLS conferences in each the US and Canada. Houston beat Miami within the remaining final season.

FC Cincinnati had been winners of the Jap Convention, in addition to the Supporters Protect, whereas St Louis Metropolis completed atop the Western Convention within the workforce’s first season.

Lionel Messi receives trophy
Lionel Messi guided Inter Miami to the Leagues Cup Championship win final yr [File: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports]

Who’re the favourites?

Inter Miami’s spending spree and the seize of Messi will mount strain on them to problem in all competitors this season, however they’ve their work minimize out having completed twenty seventh out of 29 groups final season.

With the late addition of Rossi to their ranks final season, it’s onerous to look previous defending champions Columbus Crew who even have MLS’s MVP for 2023 Hernandez.

Almada helped Atlanta prime their convention final yr however the membership’s followers might be desperately involved concerning the rising curiosity within the ahead from throughout the Atlantic, particularly when the switch window opens within the mid-year.

LAFC have been closely overshadowing their neighbours, and five-time report MLS winners, LA Galaxy in recent times and had been denied back-to-back MLS crowns in final yr’s remaining by Columbus.

They do have Lloris in purpose this season to bolster them, whereas Denis Bouanga, who has scored seven objectives in 35 internationals for Gabon, is the principle focus on the different finish of the pitch.

Who’re the previous winners?

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

DC United: 1996, 1997,1999, 2004

Columbus Crew: 2008, 2020, 2023

Sporting Kansas Metropolis: 2000, 2013

San Jose Earthquakes: 2001, 2003

Houston Dynamo: 2006, 2007

Seattle Sounders: 2016, 2019

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

What’s going on with the referees this season?

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

The Skilled Referees Organisation (PRO), which manages MLS referees, introduced on Saturday that it’ll lock out match officers after they rejected a proposed collective bargaining settlement simply days earlier than the beginning of the season.

PRO stated it had reached a tentative settlement final weekend with the Skilled Soccer Referees Affiliation. However the union stated practically 96 p.c of its members voted to reject it.

Meaning there’ll doubtless be substitute refs officiating matches for the foreseeable future.

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