Beyond Lionel Messi, this MLS season is packed with storylines

Lionel Messi took his rightful spot on center stage Wednesday night as MLS opened its 29th season with a single game, one in which Messi’s pair of assists helped his Inter Miami top Real Salt Lake.

With the 2024 curtain-raiser now out of the way, the new campaign can really begin. A full slate of 14 games is set for this weekend, highlighted by Saturday’s meeting between Western Conference powers LAFC and the Seattle Sounders (kickoff at 4:45 p.m. ET on FOX and FOX Deportes).

Week 1 concludes on Sunday night when Miami visits the LA Galaxy. But as much as this season, Messi’s first full one in MLS following his arrival midway through last year, is all about the GOAT, there are plenty of other story lines to follow.

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Can Columbus repeat as champs?

Not since the Galaxy claimed the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup titles has a team won back-to-back championships. LAFC had the opportunity last season, reaching the final a year after winning it all in 2022, but lost to the Columbus Crew.

Now the Crew get to give it a shot. Led by Colombian national team striker Cucho Hernández, silky-smooth captain Darlington Nagbe and rising coaching star Wilfried Nancy, Columbus has all the tools to repeat. They’ll face stiff competition in the East, not least from their in-state rivals FC Cincinnati, last year’s Supporters Shield winners and one of the preseason favorites to hoist the 2024 MLS Cup next December.

After reaching consecutive finals, LAFC underwent a minor refresh this winter. Carlos Vela, the face of the club since its 2018 inception, wasn’t re-upped.  Veteran center back Giorgio Chiellini retired. French World Cup winner Hugo Lloris was brought in to replace starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who was traded to the Portland Timbers.

The changes are even more across town. The once-proud Galaxy, desperate just to make the playoffs after failing to qualify in three of the last four years, offloaded designated players Douglas Costa and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and replaced them with younger, lesser-known but highly regarded attackers Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec.

The Los Angeles rivals meet April 6 in the first El Tráfico of the new season.

How will Copa América impact MLS?

First the bad news: Rather than taking a hiatus, MLS will continue to play league games during the Copa América, which runs from June 20-July 14. That means that some of the league’s biggest stars — Messi among them — will miss several weeks worth of games.

The good news is that having those players perform well on that stage will bolster MLS’s credibility.

“We want our league to be perceived as high-quality, so for our players to represent their national teams on a global stage helps reinforce that and remind fans of the world-class players in their backyards,” Camilo Durana, the executive vice president of properties and events for MLS and Soccer United Marketing, the league’s commercial arm, told FOX Sports.

Copa América is also a golden opportunity for MLS teams to engage with fans who aren’t necessarily fans of the domestic league: five of the 14 stadiums that will be used for the tournament are also MLS venues.

“There will be a lot of collaboration with our clubs,” Durana said.

Leagues Cup returns as a known quantity

MLS will again shut down for the Leagues Cup, which begins 12 days after Copa América ends. The inaugural version of the expanded competition featuring all 47 clubs in MLS and Liga MX, the top division in Mexico and most popular soccer competition in the United States, was a smashing success last year.

“We believe the Leagues Cup has the potential to become one of the most exciting sporting events in the world,” said Durana, noting that the tourney has a higher average goals per game than MLS in 2023. “The window it sits in, between mid-July and mid-August, is also interesting because it gives us a lane to be on the global stage,” he added.  “If you think long-term about things like sports betting, it’s a fascinating position for Leagues Cup to be in.”

U.S. Open Cup debacle drags on

The advent of the Leagues Cup has had one major downside: Citing schedule congestion, MLS executives no longer want to compete in the century-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters on Wednesday that his league has been “subsidizing for a long time.”

Like many countries around the world, the U.S. Soccer Federation hosts a knockout competition open to all professional, semi-pro and amateur clubs from every level. In the past, all top-division teams were required to participate. But according to multiple reports, the 2024 edition will feature just eight MLS participants. MLS teams have won every U.S. Open Cup title since 2000, although the second-tier Sacramento Republic made a Cinderella run to the final two seasons ago.

When will the referee lockout end?

Who knows? Wednesday’s match between Miami and RSL was overseen by replacement officials. So will this weekend’s games barring an 11th hour agreement to end the ongoing labor dispute.

Adding to the complexity of getting a deal done, the union’s leadership came to terms with the Professional Referees Organization, only for its members to vote overwhelmingly against accepting the pact. PRO then locked out its usual MLS refs and assistants. The two sides continue to negotiate.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to reach an agreement” soon, Garber said. “It’s not the way MLS was hoping to start a season.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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