Inter Miami and Messi are set to open the 2024 MLS season tonight at home vs. Real Salt Lake. Listen to all the action here.

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Messi scores twice, his third straight game with a goal, as Inter Miami beats Orlando City 3-1 AP/PHOTO

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.

LISTEN TO ALL THE ACTION ALL SEASON LONG ON INTER MIAMI RADIO- CLICK HERE

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.

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.”

SUCCESSES

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.”

YOUNG STARS

MLS is already a proving ground young international players.

Among the newcomers are Gabriel Pec, a 22-year-old Brazilian with the LA Galaxy, Argentine forward Agustin Ojeda, 19, of NYCFC and LAFC’s David Martinez, an 18-year-old winger from Venezuela.

Others promising players include center back Tomas Aviles, 20, at Inter Miami, teammate Benjamin Cremaschi, 18, who has a shot at making the U.S. Olympic team, and Real Salt Lake’s Fidel Barajas, just 17.

And of course the reigning Young Player of the Year, Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada, who was on Argentina’s winning 2022 World Cup squad and is just 22.

LOOKING BACK

The Columbus Crew won their third overall MLS Cup with the victory over LAFC. FC Cincinnati won the Supporters Shield going away with 69 points, while St. Louis City finished atop the Western Conference in the team’s first season.

LAFC’s Denis Bouanga won the Golden Boot for most goals with 20.

Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta was named the league’s Most Valuable Player with 17 goals and 14 assists. He also won Goal of the Year for his clinical right-footed goal after running through a series of Charlotte FC defenders in a September match.

LOOKING AHEAD

This season is slightly unusual compared to recent years in MLS in that there are no expansion teams kicking off in 2024. Major League Soccer’s explosive growth has seen it rise from 19 teams just a decade ago. But don’t fret, San Diego FC joins next season as the league’s 30th team.

There’s also going to be lots of attention on soccer in coming years, which will no doubt boost the league.

This year the United States is hosting the Copa America Tournament for the first time since 2016, and just the second time in the history of the tournament.

The FIFA Club World Cup will be held in the United States next year with an expanded field of 32 teams. The next year the U.S. hosts the World Cup with Mexico and Canada.

“I think we still have so much work to do. To look forward, the next couple of years are going to be the most important years in the history of our league with the eyes of the world again on us with Copa America, the Club World Cup in the FIFA World Cup in ’26,” Garber said. “We need to continue to work hard, operate almost as a startup and continue to build the fan engagement in our league at all levels.”

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