Messi, Apple, Leagues Cup & more: “Epic year” concludes at MLS Cup 2023


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami CF. MLS Season Pass launching on Apple TV. Leagues Cup, the midseason tournament with Liga MX, expanding. One expansion team beginning play (St. Louis CITY SC) and another getting announced (San Diego FC).

The 2023 MLS season has been full of growth, excitement and transformation.

While one more chapter awaits Saturday afternoon in MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi, when the Columbus Crew host LAFC (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), there’s value in zooming out to reflect on all that’s transpired.

“This is a terrific and fitting matchup, capping off an epic year for our league,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in Friday’s State of the League address at Field.

Messi joins Miami

In many ways, 2023 will be remembered as the year Messi first wore Inter Miami’s pink jersey – starting with his Hollywood-esque debut during a mid-July Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul.

Messi, now an eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, struck a game-winning free kick that Garber said “will go down as one of the great moments in MLS history.” In an instant, Messi Mania transformed soccer in North America and a global spotlight followed the World Cup-winning No. 10’s every move.

“The magnitude of his decision to join MLS cannot be overstated,” Garber said. “ … The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer because the best player to ever play the game is here.”

“Like all of history's iconic athletes, Messi delivered in ways that few could have imagined,” Garber added. “Only a handful of players who forever will be remembered as transforming a sport.”

New chapter

With his new team, the Argentine legend won Leagues Cup in late August – putting a bow on their tournament run with a golazo and dramatic penalty-shootout victory at Nashville SC’s GEODIS Park.

But Leagues Cup wasn’t just about Messi’s arrival. The midseason competition that began after MLS All-Star Week in Washington, D.C., was unprecedented in scope, size and ambition.

The tournament, with its month-league pause in domestic competition and all 47 clubs from across MLS and Liga MX competing, is expected to only grow in popularity.

“Leagues Cup brought with it enormous opportunity and value,” Garber said. “We couldn't be more excited about the ratings and all the folks that attended and supported our clubs in that tournament, both those who were supportive of our teams and the Liga LX teams.

“We have to work through some changes to that tournament that we're working with Liga MX about that are going to make it even better. … The good news is it's year one of a partnership. It's not like we said we're going to do this for a couple of years. This is going to go on and we'll continue working with the Mexican league to make it even better.”

Apple TV

From start to finish, fans have tuned in via MLS Season Pass on Apple TV – kicking off a 10-year partnership.

On a quick timeline, a studio and broadcast network launched from scratch. It was a massive undertaking that required synergy across the league, all 29 clubs and numerous partners, bringing to life over 1,000 MLS, MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches in mainly English and Spanish.

Games were available in over 100 countries and regions, without blackouts and following a simplified, uniform schedule with predominantly Wednesday and Saturday matchdays.

“It was an unprecedented undertaking,” Garber said.

Learnings and adjustments will be applied, as they have been in real-time, but the foundation is in place for a thriving partnership.

“As Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a recent earnings call, MLS Season Pass over-delivered on all of our expectations,” Garber said. “This is just the beginning of a long-term partnership with one of the most innovative and important companies in the world. We look forward to continuing to grow and evolve together in the years to come.”

Playoff updates

MLS also amended the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, introducing Wild Card matches and restarting the Round One Best-of-3 format. After those stages, single-elimination matches returned for Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals and MLS Cup.

It’s all led to Saturday’s final, when Columbus will seek their third-ever league title (last won in 2020) and LAFC will look to become the first back-to-back winners since the 2011-12 LA Galaxy.

“We love the format,” Garber said. “We've had more teams have home games than the last go-around. Our attendance was up, our ratings were up. There were more teams at the end who performed best during the regular season.

“So, when you look at all the things that you use to evaluate the playoff format, we've checked all those boxes. But like everything else, you can be assured that we're going to sit down with our committee in February and say, ‘Are there things that we should look at, whether it's next year or the years to come, to continue to evolve?’ But we thought it was a great success.”

More to come

As the 2023 season concludes, the page will quickly turn. To that effect…

• Garber said the 2024 schedule gets released on Dec. 20 and the new campaign starts in late February. There will also be 10 MLS clubs competing in next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup, providing a pathway towards the 2025 FIFA World Cup that’s hosted in the US.

• As soon as next week, Garber said roster-related news could emerge from a Board of Governor’s meeting that’s held on Dec. 14. There are “no plans” to add a fourth Designated Player spot, but he hinted that “some exciting” changes could be announced.

• Garber, often asked about expansion at State of the League addresses, said MLS isn’t planning to go beyond 30 teams “but we never say never to anything.” Related: San Diego are expected to unveil “more news” in the months to come before their 2025 launch.