On the eve of MLS Cup, MLS commissioner Don Garber issued his annual State of the League remarks and press conference. Although every year’s address begins with a reflection on the past twelve months, 2023’s litany of milestones felt particularly monumental.
It was the first year of MLS’s new broadcast partnership with Apple, the dawn of St. Louis City SC (the league’s 29th active franchise), the culmination of a half-decade expansion sweepstakes with team 30 being awarded to San Diego, the first installment of the new-look Leagues Cup, and record attendance for both a single-game (82,210 in a Rose Bowl edition of El Tráfico) and the season as a whole (10,900,804 fans throughout the year).
Oh, right: Lionel Messi signed with Inter Miami, increasing the league’s notability around the world and changing how the league and any team facing Miami calculates its ticket valuation. Over the span of 53 minutes, Garber addressed these topics and many others ahead of the Columbus Crew’s hosting of Los Angeles FC.
Here’s what he said about five key topics, and our read on what he meant.
How to make Messi’s impact last beyond 2025, when his contract expires
What Garber said: “I wouldn’t say that the timing is when Lionel Messi leaves MLS. It’s really (about) what do we want to be by 2027? We’re going to have the eyes of the world on us (for the 2026 World Cup), and the soccer market here in the United States is going to be exposed to the entire global soccer and football community. What is the product that we deliver? That product is not just the players and the field experience. It’s everything around them: it’s the competition itself and the competition format. All of those things require an evaluation process.
So first, I hope Lionel decides to stay longer than 2025 so maybe ‘25 isn’t the deadline. Our plan is to make the league what we want to be in 2027.”
What it implies: Journalists came prepared with numerous approaches to asking questions along these lines, from focusing on roster rules to raising fan concerns over increasing ticket prices when Inter Miami comes to town.
To the latter point, Garber pointed to the “variable ticket pricing” of other American leagues as justification for a similar approach in MLS. This would change a long-standing precedent for most MLS teams, but it’s worth noting that a version of scaled pricing exists in the modern Premier League. For a league that often straddles the fence between prioritizing American sports customs versus the global soccer standard, it’s a rare, undeniable plot of common ground.
However, Garber didn’t want to have the league’s window of opportunity determined by one player’s contract. Almost every American soccer entity has had a number of initiatives focused toward the impending 2026 men’s World Cup in North America, and the league’s current growth phase is no exception.
And, as a league spokesperson was quick to point out: Beckham himself stayed for an additional season beyond his original contract terms. – Jeff Rueter
Whether a fourth designated player (DP) is being discussed
What Garber said: “We don’t plan to add a fourth DP, but there will be announcements coming out of our board meeting — which is next week — and we’ll have press availability after that with a number of exciting things that we’re doing. Our folks that are focused on what we call product strategy, the competition committee. There will be some exciting things that we’re going to announce next week, but all that needs to go to group of owners, and we don’t have plans for a vote for a fourth DP.”
What it means: While the product strategy committee and chief soccer officers debate potential roster rule changes, one thing is clear: MLS will not change from its current policy of giving each team three designated player (DP) slots.
Garber flatly denied any thought of adding another DP to the roster rules, which would allow teams another roster slot for high-priced players.
Sources involved in discussions repeatedly told The Athletic in recent weeks that not only would there be no fourth DP, but it wasn’t even a topic of discussion, let alone being up for vote at next week’s meeting of the MLS board of governors.
Designated players can be paid any amount but hit the salary cap at a fixed cost. DPs over 23 are slotted at the maximum salary budget charge ($651,250 in 2023). DPs between 21-23 are slotted at $200,000 and DPs younger than 21 hit the cap at $150,000.
That doesn’t mean the rules will stay the same. It’s likely an announcement of some sort of roster rules adjustment will come next week. – Tom Bogert
What Garber said: “I think the biggest challenge of any league around the world is managing schedule. Unlike every league here in North America, we don’t control that schedule entirely. Our playoffs are an example of that, having an (international window) come through the middle of our playoffs.
“We will adapt and figure out the right way to change, whether that’s roster changes, whether its participation in some tournaments and not others, or whether it’s ways that we can manage the schedule to give those teams that have more scheduled congestion and opportunity to have a bit more time in between games.
What it means: On Saturday, LAFC will extend their single-season record for games played by an MLS team to 53, a discussion point that has prompted frustration around the league. Steve Cherundolo, the LAFC head coach, has expressed his dissatisfaction with the fixture congestion on several occasions — suggesting a combination of long-haul travel and roster-building restrictions left his side unable to compete seriously on all fronts. Here, Garber highlights fixture congestion as an issue affecting leagues worldwide, which is true. Still, those in elite leagues competing in continental competition do not have the travel or roster frustrations MLS clubs face in most cases.
As Garber alludes to, there is potential for the league to consider changes to participation in certain tournaments, potentially referring to the U.S. Open Cup, which is a United States Soccer Federation-sanctioned event. With the expansion of Leagues Cup and the investment from Apple and MLS into that tournament, Garber referenced the potential for “a new plan” regarding the format in collaboration with the USSF. – Elias Burke
Referee and fan safety
What Garber said: “The safety of our fans, players, and officials is a massive priority for our league, and it ought to be a priority for everyone, whether it’s those people who have to decide about rules and regulations or discipline when those rules are violated.”
“We have never had a player enter the locker room in the history of this league, and a player entered our locker room this year. That’s not taking away anything and the character of the player, there are times when passion gets the best of people, but that can’t be tolerated. Ultimately, it was a tough price to pay.”
What it means: Matt Miazga, the 2023 MLS Defender of the Year, was suspended by the league for three matches (including FC Cincinnati’s defeat to Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Final) for entering the referee’s locker room after receiving two yellow cards during a series-clinching victory against the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. The sanction, and this address from Garber, enforced the point that pushing the boundaries will not be tolerated on officials, who he described as “incredible professionals performing at the highest level”.
The reference to the safety of fans appears to allude to the league’s sanctions on LAFC and the 3252 supporter group, after flares were lit in the crowd ahead of the Western Conference final, causing a cloud of smoke to cover the field at BMO Stadium and delaying the kickoff time.
Members of the supporter’s group have expressed frustration at the decision, referencing marketing campaigns from the league and Apple TV+ using images of the 3252’s flare and tifo demonstration from last year’s MLS Cup final. While details of the sanctions have not yet been released, the 3252 will have all supporter privileges indefinitely suspended for the 2024 season pending the completion of MLS and LAFC’s comprehensive review, and the club was fined $100,000 for failing to meet required safety protocols. – Elias Burke
Looking back on Anthony Precourt’s attempted move of the Crew to Austin and the fan movement in opposition
What Garber said: “As you can imagine, when you’re here, you’re reflecting on that — whether it’s me, my office, all the folks that work together, managing through all of the challenges that we went through to get to that announcement five years ago to get to where we are today.
We had said from the very beginning that if we’re thoughtful, if we have patience, we will get through this and there will be a good outcome. Going through that process was not one that I would have hoped to ever have to go through again, but when I look at where we are today: we have a stadium (Lower.com Field) that’s one of the best soccer stadiums in our league, if not the best small soccer stadium in the world. We have a team that’s performing incredibly well. We have a bunch of fans who now have more to engage with and cheer for. We have more sponsors for the team than we had before. We have more political and municipal support than we had before. We have an ownership commitment that is at the highest level. If we had to go through that again and end up where we are today, we’d go through it again.
I will say that — it’s probably not the most popular thing to say Columbus — we are really proud of what is going on in Austin. They’ve done a good job, they built a great stadium, they’ve got a successful team, and they’re being part of this global movement of trying to show what Major League Soccer can be in markets — even when you’ve got to go through some trauma to get there.”
What it means: On Saturday, the Columbus Crew will host an MLS Cup final for the second time since the Haslem and Edwards families took the club over from Precourt, but the first time at Lower.com Field, a modern facility opened in 2021. That, coupled with Austin’s strong off-field impact since debuting in 2021 (including its own new stadium) and run to last year’s conference final, turned what once appeared to be one of the league’s darkest moments into the origination of two successes of very different scales.
Austin is among the standard-bearers for a recently formed club in a mid-sized market. Their stadium remains best-in-class — although the league and its owners often say that about at least 10 of its venues —while making genuinely imprints in the Austin community from its artists to its business. In Columbus, there’s an undeniable example of taking one of the league’s original clubs and giving it a glow-up to keep pace with the newcomers. It’s a case study that’ll surely be studied by clubs like New England as they work towards building their own home and, hopefully for their fans’ sake, the Chicago Fire as the honeymoon phase of the Joe Mansueto Era erodes due to on-field mediocrity.
Just over five years ago, the league was on the brink of losing a founding member. Instead, it has brought Columbus back to the forefront of the domestic soccer landscape. – Jeff Rueter
(Photo: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)