Replacement refs, Messi and Miami, USMNT hopefuls among biggest 2024 MLS questions

The 2024 MLS season is upon us, with Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake kicking off on Wednesday night in the league’s earliest-ever opener.

It’s certainly fitting that the league’s 29th season will begin with a standalone match featuring Miami. The Herons will be the most closely watched team in league history, as they embark on their first full season with their cadre of superstars including, of course, the greatest player of all time.

But Messi-watch will be far from the only intriguing story to follow in MLS this season. Here are 10 of the biggest questions we have as the 2024 MLS campaign gets underway.

How bad will the replacement refs be?

Replacement refs are coming to MLS — at least for a small stretch.

MLS referees are officially locked out after their union overwhelmingly rejected the latest offer from their employer, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO).

That means a host of replacement officials have been lined up to take charge of games as long as the lockout lasts. The referees have some degree of top-level experience, but very few have refereed in MLS.

That, needless to say, could be a problem. The lockout may not last long, but even one game with replacement refs could be one too many if, say, Wednesday’s opener between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake is tainted by some dodgy officiating.

Will Lionel Messi and Inter Miami boom or bust?

No team in MLS history will be under the microscope quite as much as the 2024 version of Inter Miami.

It will be the first full season for Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and the MLS debut for Luis Suárez. Clearly, this team is going to blow the doors off MLS, right? Well, maybe.

There is some serious boom or bust potential for a team so reliant on four players whose average age is 35.5 years old, one of whom is playing on a knee that may never be fully healed.

If Miami’s superstar ex-Barcelona players stay healthy and the club’s younger players pull their weight, this should be a Supporters’ Shield contender. But the likelihood of more injuries — and Messi’s international commitments — mean nothing is assured in South Florida in 2024.

Will the USMNT call up more MLS players in 2024?

Over the past couple years, Gregg Berhalter’s preference for European-based players over MLS stars has become unmistakable.

The U.S. men’s national team head coach used to call in rosters with a healthy dose of MLS-based talent, but lately, his squads have had almost no room for MLS players.

Last year, a number of players on the 2022 World Cup squad saw themselves phased out of the A-team picture, including the likes of Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta, Jesús Ferreira, Walker Zimmerman and DeAndre Yedlin.

Will any of those names return in 2024? Can Miles Robinson maintain his place after eschewing a European move to sign with FC Cincinnati? What about rising MLS talent like Diego Luna? Those are all developments we’ll be watching closely, as well as a related story out in Colorado ...

Can the Colorado Rapids rebuild USMNT careers?

The Colorado Rapids made three headline signings over the offseason, all of whom came with a similar backstory.

Djordje Mihailovic, Sam Vines and Zack Steffen joined the Rapids from European clubs, with the trio all aiming to regain their footing in MLS and return to the picture for the USMNT.

Mihailovic battled through form and personal issues at AZ, while Vines and Steffen are coming off injuries. Though all three are on the outside looking in when it comes to the USMNT, they’re all young enough to regain their place with a run of good form.

On a national team that is increasingly reliant on players from Europe, though, there is a question over just how good that form would have to be for any of the new Rapids players to earn a recall. The trio’s situation could have implications that reverberate far beyond Colorado.

Can the LA Galaxy turn it around?

The Los Angeles Galaxy were once the envy of MLS, but lately they’ve been more of a laughingstock than anything else.

After missing the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years and watching crosstown rival LAFC make a second straight MLS Cup, the pressure is on the Galaxy to regain their place near the top of the league.

Two major new signings should help, at least on the attacking side. The club has shelled out nearly $20 million for Gabriel Pec and Joseph Paintsil, a major statement of intent but a risk for a front office that has often misfired on signings in recent years.

There are still major question marks defensively for a team that conceded a league-worst 67 goals in 2023. If head coach Greg Vanney can’t find a workable defensive solution, no amount of offensive firepower will save this team.

What will become of the U.S. Open Cup?

MLS appeared to deliver a death blow to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in December, announcing it would only field teams from the third-division MLS Next Pro in 2024.

The move drew an immediate backlash, as well as questions as to whether the league could actually do what it was proposing. The answer to that question came just a week later: nope.

U.S. Soccer rejected the MLS request — a word the federation used, not the league — to field Next Pro teams in the Open Cup, leaving the fate of the tournament in limbo.

MLS and U.S. Soccer have been in talks over how to proceed this year, with ESPN reporting that a tentative solution is on the table that would see only some MLS teams participate.

That solution is far from satisfactory, and it’s only for 2024, leaving the long-term future of the Open Cup very much in the balance.

Will the sales start flowing again?

It was a relatively quiet offseason in MLS when it came to outbound transfers, with some of the more anticipated sales not coming to fruition.

Chief among those was Atlanta United star Thiago Almada, who openly stated his desire to leave only for a move to never materialize. Should the World Cup-winner depart, he would likely be sold for a figure around the MLS record for an outbound transfer ($29 million).

Several big names, including Almada, could depart midseason which, as always, is ideal for the buying clubs in Europe and much less so for the selling clubs in MLS.

Keep an eye on LAFC striker Dénis Bouanga, Houston Dynamo midfielder Coco Carrasquilla, New England Revolution midfielder Noel Buck and Philadelphia Union striker Julián Carranza, among others.

Atlanta United FC midfielder Thiago Almada won a World Cup with Argentina and is one of the most sought-after players in MLS.
Atlanta United FC midfielder Thiago Almada won a World Cup with Argentina and is one of the most sought-after players in MLS.

Will the regular season matter?

MLS tried out yet another new playoff format in 2023, with 18 of the league’s 29 teams making the postseason. That format returns for 2024.

With almost two-thirds of the league making the playoffs, the MLS regular season will inherently be devalued. But last year at least, there was some reward for regular season performance when it came to the playoffs.

Aside from Sporting Kansas City’s shock upset over top-seeded St. Louis, all of the other seven higher-seeded teams won in the best-of-three first round. The rest of the postseason, though, was a bit less clear as four of the remaining seven one-off matches were won by the higher seed.

MLS is sticking with its playoff format in 2024, with another tweak likely in 2025 when San Diego FC enters the league as its 30th team.

How much will St. Louis City SC fall back to earth?

Notice this section is not titled “Will St. Louis City fall back to earth?” Because, well, it’s going to happen.

Picked by many to be among the worst teams in MLS in its expansion season, St. Louis City SC was instead one of the league’s best teams and stories in 2023. Bradley Carnell’s side finished atop the Western Conference and even the aforementioned early exit in the playoffs didn’t dampen an incredible debut season.

But! The underlying numbers suggest that St. Louis also got very lucky in 2023. How lucky? The team’s expected goal differential of -7.5 was second-worst in the Western Conference, even though its actual goal differential of +17 was the best. You don’t need to be a mathematician to know that success is not sustainable.

St. Louis also didn’t make many big additions this offseason. This can absolutely still be a playoff team in 2024, but a league juggernaut it will not be.

Can the Columbus Crew do it again?

The Columbus Crew achieved the Platonic ideal of the game last season: They won, and looked pretty doing it.

Columbus won its second MLS Cup in four seasons in December, defeating LAFC 2-1 in the title game at its home stadium, Field.

The Crew have become the envy of the league by implementing Wilfried Nancy’s positive, attack-first approach seamlessly. Columbus wants the ball, and it usually does something eye-catching when it has possession.

But repeating in MLS is hard. There’s a reason no team since the Galaxy in 2012 has pulled off the feat. And Columbus will face the schedule-congesting Concacaf Champions Cup this season, which has felled plenty of successful MLS teams in the past.

But the Crew have lost very few key players, and added some solid pieces in the form of Marino Hinestroza and Derrick Jones. If any team is capable of breaking the 12-year defending champion curse, it may be this one.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLS 2024 preview: 10 biggest questions, Lionel Messi, USMNT hopefuls