2023 has been a year of growth for Major League Soccer, from a new TV rights deal to St. Louis City SC setting a new bar for expansion teams right over to a little-known guy named Lionel Messi coming to the league and helping lead Inter Miami to their first trophy in club history as they hoisted a revamped Leagues Cup. Being able to build on that is critical, but also the match congestion that came with pausing the season for teams to play matches versus Mexican domestic teams while also lengthening playoffs has taken a toll on the depth of teams.
To that end, MLS commissioner Don Garber made two notable comments in his annual address ahead of the MLS Cup final. Speaking Friday, Garber ruled out one way of roster relief potentially coming by saying that there won't be a fourth Designated Player added to rosters. The Designated Player slots are roster spots that allow teams to get stars to build around because only a set portion of a DP's salary is counted against the salary which means concentrating large salaries on those players doesn't hinder a team's ability to use other funds elsewhere around the roster.
Garber also talked about figuring out ways to manage the number of games that teams are playing. In the MLS Cup final, for example, the Columbus Crew will play their 51st game of the season while Los Angeles FC will play their 54th.
"It's a unique dynamic, not every team Is affected in the same way ... so we also have to deal with some teams that aren't playing enough games and some teams in the views of coaches are playing too many games and how do we manage that in a thoughtful environment?
"The best thing I could say is that the league has been able to evolve through all of the changes that have come to us like the Club World Cup in an expanded format or Copa America taking place here next summer and we'll adapt and figure out the right way to change and whether that's roster changes or whether it's participation in some tournaments and not others."
This was obviously a factor this season with Messi's arrival at Inter Miami. Messi led the team to a Leagues Cup title, took them to a U.S. Open Cup final, but playing every three days all summer long took its toll and he missed time down the stretch due to an injured hamstring. If Inter Miami are to play in 50+ games next season with a core of four players over the age of 35, there will be quite a lot of wear and tear, so it's clear that the league is looking at some shifts and that they will come in the scheduling department, not the roster department. Those shifts should be announced in the coming weeks following the owners meetings that happen following MLS Cup.
This obviously raises questions about how committed MLS is to the U.S. Open Cup, and Garber did revisit comments from earlier this year he made about that tournament, where he was highly critical of it.
"I made those comments because I believe if we're going to have our professional teams competing in a tournament that is the oldest tournament of its type anywhere in the country, we all need to embrace it from our federation to our respective leagues and give it the profile and give it the support that it needs," Garber said on the Open Cup. "If we can't do that, then we should meet together and decide there there may need to be a new plan. So I will say that I'm pleased that our competition group and U.S. Soccer have been working together since that last U.S. Soccer board meeting and we've been working on ways to evolve the U.S. Open Cup so that it can be more valuable to everyone. That process is ongoing. There might be changes to our participation sometime in the future but there's nothing to announce."
More could be coming down the line but it's clear that a lot is happening around the league as they figure out how to optimize chances to use Messi and grow from where things are now but it's something that also needs to balance historic things like Open Cup with the new things like Leagues Cup.