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MLS commissioner says 2023 was undeniably the Year of Messi but season also had other high points

The 2023 Major League Soccer season was undeniably the year of Lionel Messi.

The World Cup champion and eight-time Ballon d'Or winner arrived at Inter Miami this summer and changed the league. Sales of pink No. 10 jerseys spiked, subscriptions to MLS games on Apple TV surged and ticket prices for his games reached unheard-of levels.

“I think history will look back at 2023 as the year of Messi, but from my perspective, it was perhaps the most spectacular year in our history, for a variety of reasons, and Lionel Messi took it to a level that probably was hard to imagine,” Commissioner Don Garber said during an interview on the state of the league.

The 36-year-old Messi had 11 goals and eight assists in 14 games across all competitions for Inter Miami. He helped the team secure a trophy in the first League’s Cup competition with Liga MX.

Across the league, attendance went up 5% overall, and Inter Miami saw more than a 35% jump. Miami has already sold out its 2024 tickets — with another draw in Uruguay's Luis Suarez rumored to be on the way.

Garber said there were other reasons this was a transformative year in MLS, pointing to the league's momentum coming off the World Cup in Qatar last December, the success of expansion St. Louis City, a new media rights deal with Apple TV, and the playoff format.

Add to that this Saturday's MLS Cup final between LAFC and the Columbus Crew.

"And then to cap it all off, Messi comes to Miami and overdelivered on so many different levels on the field and off the field, and really delivered on this concept that MLS can be the league of choice for the best players in the world,” Garber said.

Garber wouldn't bite on a question about Suarez, but he did express frustration with recent reports that Messi referred to MLS as a “minor” league, saying part of the confusion was a translation issue.

“He (Messi) understands that MLS is a different league and on a different level than La Liga. There's no arguing that,” Garber said. “That empowers us to continue to do the work we need to do to continue to be one of the top leagues in the world."

APPLE TV DEAL

This was the first year of the league's 10-year media rights deal with Apple TV. Neither Apple nor the league would provide ratings information but both parties indicated they were pleased. Credit Messi again.

Streaming measurement firm Antenna reported 110,075 new MLS Season Pass signups on the day of Messi’s Inter Miami debut. That was a 280% increase from the number of signups on opening day of the 2023 season. Another 65,000 signed up when he played his second game, according to the data.

In a quarterly earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook said Messi's arrival helped the company surpass its subscriber targets for the three months ending in July.

LEAGUES CUP

Garber said the new midseason competition between MLS and Mexico's Liga MX is building a bridge leading up to the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

But it also adds more games to the players' already crowded schedules — which include national team duties.

“We like the midseason component to it because it allows both Liga MX and MLS to focus on the tournament. This idea of this in-season tournament that's being adopted by other leagues is something that we've been working on for years and we're very excited about," Garber said. “We will continue to look at congestion because schedule congestion is a big issue for every professional soccer league, whether it's our league or any of the other international leagues.”

NEW PLAYOFF FORMAT

The new playoff format, with a best-of-three first round, has drawn criticism, including from LAFC star Carlos Vela.

Garber said he views the format as positive and said there are no plans to change it. There were sellouts in Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus and Los Angeles. Additionally, the higher seeds advanced at a greater rate than in the past 15 years, rewarding teams that did well in the regular season.

"Anytime you change, people are going to have their points of view, but our measures are what is driving our view of the success of the format," Garber said. "More fans had the opportunity to experience playoff soccer than ever before, we had great exciting and intense games with great energy in our stadiums."

EXPANSION

St. Louis City had a historic first season, becoming the first expansion team to claim the top seed in its conference in league history.

The team's 17 wins also set a record for most by an expansion team. And City sold out all 18 home games at their new downtown stadium.

It's a high bar for San Diego, which joins the league as its 30th team in 2025.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press