Leo Messi and Inter Miami inaugurates the new MLS season

The league’s 29th season opens with a duel between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake this Wednesday.

On Feb. 21, the new season of Major League Soccer (MLS) gets underway, the 29th edition of North America's main soccer competition, whose regular season will conclude on Oct. 19. The playoffs will follow, where the new champion will emerge. The sport is gaining popularity thanks, in part, to the arrival of stars like Leo Messi last season.

The Argentine star, who is in his second season in North American soccer, and his Inter Miami teammates play the opening game against Real Salt Lake at the DRV PNK Stadium in Florida. The rest of the matches on the first day will be held between Saturday, Feb. 24, and Sunday, Feb. 25.

Will the Columbus Crew defend their title or will there be a new champion?

The 29 team that make up the MLS will fight for the throne currently occupied by the Columbus Crew. The Ohio-based team beat Los Angeles FC 2-1 in last season's MLS Cup.

Other teams are eager to take the crown. FC Cincinnati, Los Angeles FC, Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United and Inter Miami are a few of the favorites to bring home the title this year.

Inter Miami has improved its chances thanks its new additions, such as Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, who will once again share the field with old friends like Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

MLS referees’ strike

The start of this new season will be impacted by the referees' strike, which, for the moment, will only affect the first day. The union that represents them, the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), rejected, through a vote, the collective offer proposed by the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) to improve the conditions of its members, among which were a salary increase and improved working conditions.

In a statement published on its website, PSRA President Peter Manikowski argued in favor of his constituents, citing the increased physical and mental demands due to the growth of the league:

We live for this game, giving it 100 percent of our dedication, experience, fitness and ability. The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time. Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands.

PRO General Manager Mark Geiger described the referees' decision not to accept the new economic and working conditions offered by the regulatory body as a "significant risk":

The PSRA has rejected a no strike/no lockout proposal from PRO through the 2024 MLS Cup, which, along with their public strike authorization, has created significant risk as the 2024 season begins. We are left with no choice but to institute a lockout and use qualified non-bargaining unit officials so that games can go ahead as scheduled.