With Messi in the U.S. and World Cup to follow, MLS owners debate roster rule changes

It took just 22 minutes for Lionel Messi to score two goals on Atlanta United’s defense Tuesday night, and just one appearance before that to deliver a storybook moment. Before the Argentine arrived, Inter Miami had not won in 11 consecutive MLS games. They have now won twice in the two Leagues Cup games he has appeared.

Messi has dominated every league in which he’s played, and for the next two and a half years, performances like the ones we’ve already seen here will bring new eyeballs to Major League Soccer. Combined with an unprecedented run of important soccer events coming to the U.S. (2024 Copa America, 2025 Club World Cup, 2026 World Cup and potentially 2027 Women’s World Cup), the opportunity is there to capture a larger audience. MLS has to find a way to make long-term fans out of the casual viewers who come with Messi and those tournaments.

For that reason, one of the major questions going into last week’s MLS board of governors meeting in Washington D.C. was whether the league would consider changes to its complicated web of roster rules. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing how much owners are spending, but how they are allowed to spend it.

Multiple team executives, who were granted anonymity to speak bluntly without impacting their standing in the league, said MLS needs to allow teams more flexibility to spend money across their rosters and improve the overall product. Improving the teams and players around Messi are critical to maximizing his impact in the league, they said.

“Evolution is inevitable and change is likely,” said Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas, who has been an advocate for change and now has delivered the biggest star in MLS history. “We all want this to be an elite league, we all want it to grow.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber (left) speaks with Inter Miami owners Jorge (center) and Jose Mas (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

The MLS rulebook has undergone plenty of change over the league’s 27 seasons, but typically those changes have come in phases — and always in ways that maintain league control over team spending. These restrictions made sense for much of MLS’ early history, as it tried to avoid the financial pitfalls that befell previous U.S. professional soccer leagues. But MLS is in a different and altogether more stable place now, and it has been for years.

In its current state, teams are given great license to spend lavishly on a small number of players through each team’s three designated player (DP) spots. That system is working well for Miami right now, but for the league’s other teams, signing Messi is not replicable, and spending big isn’t always advisable. History has shown that spending huge amounts of money on your three DP spots doesn’t guarantee winning, in part because it puts so much weight on the performance of just three players who can get injured or simply fail to produce.

Additions of quality players outside of those three DPs require creative accounting involving devices like targeted allocation money (TAM), general allocation money (GAM) and the league’s U-22 initiative, introduced in recent seasons to encourage the recruitment of younger foreign players.

For advocates of rule changes, allowing teams to spread money across more of their roster — with fewer “buckets” and restrictions set by league rules — would allow for greater variance in how teams build rosters, as well as stronger, more well-rounded teams that are more likely to capture fans’ attention.

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Changing or removing these rules was not discussed in depth at the board of governors meeting. However, league executive Todd Durbin, the main architect of the roster rules and regulations, did make a presentation about potential changes, and multiple team owners said after the meeting that options will be studied and discussed. That may sound underwhelming given Messi’s immediate on-field impact, but it is a significant development after years of the league insisting its incremental tweaks were the only changes coming to its roster rules.

But while owners acknowledged that a conversation was happening, it remains to be seen whether the league feels it needs to act urgently — as some believe it does off the back of Messi’s arrival.

Mas has long been one of the louder voices on the side of opening up restrictions on how owners spend. Last week after the board of governors meeting, Charlotte FC owner David Tepper publicly supported change, as well.

“Yes, I would like less roster restrictions so we could spend more money,” Tepper said.

Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto told The Athletic last year that he “would love to see (the roster rules) more decentralized, and let the owners choose how to allocate the spend across their roster.”

Other owners seemed to encourage a more patient approach, but didn’t close the door on changes.

“I think it’s a continuing element of the discussion,” Houston Dynamo owner Ted Segal said. “The addition of Lionel Messi and some of the teammates that he’s bringing along, I think is a reflection of the improving standard of quality of play that we have. And I think there’s ambitions across the league to bring in higher quality players.”

Columbus Crew co-owner JW Johnson, whose in-laws, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, are owners of the Crew and Cleveland Browns and have a stake in the Milwaukee Bucks, added: “We’re involved in the NFL and NBA. Having a hard salary cap is an important thing for clubs to be successful and to have parity amongst the league. I think it’s all up for discussion. If we can add good players, then let’s add good players, that’s the way I look at it.”

Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said that he was “optimistic we’ll have positive changes,” clarifying that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the league.

“I think (changing roster rules) is something we’re well-served to look at (this winter).”

Paulson is one of a handful of owners on the league’s product strategy committee, a group that studies and recommends roster rule changes. The committee is co-chaired by FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt and Vancouver owner Greg Kerfoot, and also includes Seattle owner Adrian Hanauer, City Football Group executive Ferran Soriano and Red Bull executive Oliver Mintzlaff. Former LA Galaxy president Chris Klein used to sit on the committee, but it’s not clear if he has been replaced since he was fired by the Galaxy earlier this year. The board has also included non-voting members in the past, including LAFC co-owner Larry Berg and former Atlanta United president Darren Eales. Durbin works closely with product strategy to shape the regulations.

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Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer is among the members of the product strategy committee (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The product strategy committee met the day before the board meeting in Washington D.C., though details of what exactly was discussed are not known. However, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting who spoke anonymously to protect their relationships in the league, the meeting did not include any chief soccer officers (CSOs) – the group of executives from around the league whose titles vary (president, general manager, technical director, sporting director among them), but all of whom are responsible for the day-to-day work of recruiting players and shaping MLS rosters under the current set of rules.

The exclusion wasn’t for lack of availability; three of the four co-chairs of MLS’ CSO committee — Colorado Rapids president Padraig Smith, LAFC co-president/GM John Thorrington and Columbus Crew president/GM Tim Bezbatchenko — were in D.C. for the All-Star Game and attended portions of the board of governors meeting.

How the league as a whole is thinking about change remains to be seen. Not every CSO is necessarily in favor of opening up roster rules.

“I’m in favor of not rushing into something,” Vancouver Whitecaps CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster said. “I think the roster rules are good, we have done well over the last years in calmness to discuss the next steps. We should continue this process. Every time in this business that gets so speeded up sometimes where leagues do something then have regret later. We should think it through well, then make adjustments when we’re sure they’re right for the future.”

Mas indicated there are different paths being debated by MLS owners about a way forward: “incremental change” or “game-changing moves.” The league has long operated in the former category, preaching that a more targeted approach protected owners from spending too much when the league was still trying to increase revenues and gain a foothold in the American pro sports landscape. The next four years, however, present a unique window of opportunity considering the significant amount of attention being drawn to the sport in the U.S.

“What I would say is that we work really hard to make sure that we can say yes to things, not no, right?” MLS deputy commissioner Gary Stevenson said. “But we also have a structure. And there’s nothing more important than our structure. So there’s that balance of solving problems, but remaining within the structure. And then we re-evaluate every couple of years as to what’s the best structure for us. If you really look at it, it’s just been an evolution. And Todd (Durbin) is about as good at that as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Mas, who is now investing tens of millions of dollars in contracts for Messi and Busquets, seemed optimistic that the league was prepared to adapt.

“As the league revenues continue to grow, you’re going to see more investment in players,” Mas said. “I think we’re on the right path. A lot of work to do, but I’m confident that the outcome of the work will be positive.”

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Busquets was unveiled alongside Messi earlier this month (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Mas has a vested interest in MLS updating its rules. Inter Miami’s efforts to surround Messi with his friends, who also happen to be some of the top players of this era, must be crafted to fit the restrictions. The rules as they stand lead to questions about how Miami is going to be able to fit Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, potentially Luis Suarez, and some of the top young players they are looking to or have signed, including Paraguayan international Diego Gómez — and remain cap compliant. It’s difficult to answer in part because MLS does not make teams’ cap information public.

Crucially, Garber indicated earlier this month that the league is looking at making the rules more transparent to make it easier for fans to engage with the league, as they do with the NFL, the NBA and MLB.

That Miami remains under sanctions for breaking roster rules in 2021 only fuels speculation that the club may look to color outside the lines again. Among Miami’s violations were improperly reporting payments and compensation for multiple players, thereby misclassifying them on the roster. That most notably included Blaise Matuidi, who was making several million dollars more than Miami reported to the league and should have been classified as a designated player.

That history has caused some skepticism regarding how Miami has managed to sign Alba, who captained Spain to the UEFA Nations League title this summer and reportedly made north of $20 million last season at Barcelona, to a contract paying him no more than $1.65 million annually. It is worth noting that Alba did receive a chunk of the €36 million ($39.8 million) in salary and deferrals he was due from Barcelona when he decided to leave with one year left on his contract, which could help make up for the difference in wages.

Alba’s status also shines a spotlight on how some current MLS rules limit not just how much money you spend, but how specifically you are allowed to spend it.

Miami could have bought down the contract of striker Leo Campana with allocation money and signed Alba as a designated player if it wanted, but according to the rules, doing so would have limited the team to just one U-22 initiative spot. In effect, the rules force teams to build rosters in a specific way, with no consideration for whether the team owner or leadership sees that path as the right one for their club.

Inter Miami is not the only team to be punished for spending outside of the roster rules. The LA Galaxy is also currently under sanctions for similar violations. In an anonymous survey of 21 team executives last year, respondents said cheating the roster rules was commonplace, to varying degrees. One estimated that 50 percent of teams are spending “six figures” above the cap, an indication that some owners are not only willing to spend more, but are already doing so.

“How many follow (the rules) 100 percent to a ‘T?’ Zero. Zero,” one CSO said.

For as granular as the roster rules debate can get, the more important consideration is the league’s long-term approach.

“Those rules are in place because we’re strategically trying to ensure that our teams are signing players that ultimately will grow our fan base as opposed to necessarily having one team beat another, which in many ways, when you’re thinking about the global landscape, is a zero-sum game,” Garber said. “But how do we make Major League Soccer more competitive? … All of those roster techniques are driven not just so we can be good on a given Saturday, but how our teams can be more competitive. And that continues to be a goal.”

The audience that has come to MLS with Messi is likely to shrink once he leaves — PSG lost more than 1 million social media followers in the days after Messi’s last game. Garber noted this last week in a roundtable with reporters.

“I have followed what has happened as Lionel has left other teams and other leagues,” Garber said. “And we’re mindful of that, we’re very thoughtful about, how do we ensure that 2026 and beyond, MLS is raised to a higher level and is really transformed by having this iconic moment that we take advantage of?”

Garber said the “timing was right,” and while he noted that the league doesn’t feel rushed to “move any faster than the market will deliver for us,” he certainly left open the door for change.

With Messi in MLS and the major tournaments over the next three to four years in the U.S., the league has the chance to capitalize and grow its audience.

The question is what that change will look like, and whether it will be comprehensive enough to make a meaningful impact.

(Photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

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