2024 MLS Preview: Toronto FC needs more from Italian duo, all eyes on Messi

TFC manager John Herdman addresses the perceived locker room issues within the club, says he's seen "an absolute commitment from that group of men to enjoy their football again, to compete for this city and to reconnect back to their fans."

Major League Soccer’s 28th campaign kicks off this week, highlighted by Wednesday’s standalone season opener featuring Lionel Messi and Inter Miami.  

Canadian teams CF Montreal and Toronto FC will also be in action this week, while the Vancouver Whitecaps have a bye and must wait until March 2 when they host Charlotte FC in their season curtain raiser. 

Reigning MLS Cup holders Columbus Crew welcome Atlanta United to Lower.com Field on Saturday as it begins its quest to become only the fourth team in league history to repeat as champions, and the first since David Beckham and LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012. 

Here’s what else you need to know about the 2024 MLS regular season.    

The playoff format  

The top seven teams in each of the Eastern and Western Conferences clinch playoff berths, while the eighth and ninth seeds will face off in a one-game wild-card match. The winners of both wild-card games move on to the next round which is made up of best-of-three series (rather than single elimination contests).  

In the best-of-three, no games can end in draws. If a match is tied at the end of regulation time, it’ll go straight to a penalty shootout. The first team to win two matches will advance to the conference semifinals. The aggregate score doesn’t count. 

Both the conference semifinals and finals will remain one-legged affairs. The highest remaining seed will host the MLS Cup Final, as has been the case since 2012. All of these games will go to 30 minutes of extra time, followed by a penalty shootout (if necessary) if they are tied after 90 minutes of regulation time.  

Toronto FC desperately needs Italian DPs to produce  

You’d have expected that for all the money Toronto FC is paying Lorenzo Insigne ($15.4 million US) and Federico Bernardeschi ($6.29 million), they would have scored with alarming regularity. But they didn’t. In total, they scored five goals apiece in all competitions in 2023 

If that’s not bad enough, consider this: second-year pro Deandre Kerr finished tied with both of TFC’s Designated Players as the club’s top scorer. Little wonder that Toronto finished last place in 2023 and set new franchise records for the fewest wins (four) and points (22) in a single season.

On the pitch, the Italians have failed to live up to expectations and their status as two of the highest-paid players in the league by combining for a meagre 10 goals and 10 assists in MLS last year. Toronto finished tied for the league’s worst offensive unit in 2023 as it tallied just 26 goals in 34 games – this despite having attackers the calibre of Insigne and Bernardeschi — who were part of the Azzurri’s Euro 2020 Championship-winning side and who featured in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League prior to coming to MLS in 2022. 

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“For sure, I expect more [from myself] too, honestly,” Bernardeschi said at the end of last season. “But when you are in a tough situation, when you are in a difficult situation, it’s not easy to be your best, to do your best. When you are inside a difficult situation … you suffer with the team.”  

Simply put, Insigne and Bernardeschi have not been transformative DPs – they haven’t even been average DPs. If Toronto has any chance of turning things around this year, they need their marquee Italians to start producing and playing like top-level stars.   

CF Montreal gambles on signing striker Josef Martínez 

CF Montreal failed to qualify for the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years after tallying just 36 goals in 2023 (fourth worst in the league). None of Montreal’s strikers hit double digits last year. In fact, midfielder Mathieu Choinière led the club in scoring with a meagre five goals in MLS action. Needless to say, Montreal needs someone to step up in a big way and provide it with some scoring power in 2024. 

The club is banking on Josef Martínez after it recently signed the Venezuelan striker to a one-year deal, including an option for 2025. Martínez, 30, ranks ninth on the league’s all-time scoring list (105 goals), and he won an MLS Cup, the Golden Boot and the league’s MVP award during his time with Atlanta United from 2017 to 2022.

 But he left Atlanta after a much-publicized falling out with the club, while also struggling to recover from an ACL injury he suffered in 2020. He was traded last January to Inter Miami where he scored seven goals in 27 MLS matches, far off his career-high 31 goals in 2018 and his 27-goal tally in 2019. 

Martínez doesn’t have much support up top at Montreal, so he’ll be expected to lead the attack. It’ll be interesting to see if a move to la belle province will reignite his career and whether he can spark Montreal’s attack. 

White and Gauld: Vancouver Whitecaps’ “Dynamic Duo” 

If Brian White and Ryan Gauld played almost anywhere else in the league, they’d be household names across MLS. But because they play for the Vancouver Whitecaps, they have flown largely under the radar of most MLS fans and media pundits and haven’t garnered the recognition they quite deserve. 

That’s a genuine shame because White and Gauld have formed one of the league’s best-attacking pairs since first playing together in 2021. In the two and a half seasons since then, White and Gauld have tallied 54 league goals and 38 assists between them. 

In 2023, White scored 15 times, which was a career-high for the 28-year-old forward from New Jersey. Gauld, also 28, firmly established himself as one of the best attacking midfielders in MLS with 11 goals and 12 assists. Incredibly, the Scotsman wasn’t named a finalist for the league’s MVP award even though he was a big reason why Vancouver punched above its weight by finishing sixth in the Western Conference and qualified for the playoffs for the second time in three years. 

All of this leads to the obvious question: What can White and Gauld do for an encore in 2024? Vancouver is hoping for plenty more from their dynamic duo, especially after it recently signed Gauld to an extension through 2027, securing the DP’s immediate future as he was being linked with moves to clubs from abroad. 

Player to watch: Lionel Messi 

Who else could it possibly be? 

Messi, 36, joined Inter Miami last July and ended up scoring 11 goals in 14 games in all competitions as he captured the collective imagination of the U.S. soccer scene. But the Argentine’s offensive outburst wasn’t enough (only one goal in six league matches) to help Miami qualify for the MLS playoffs, as the team finished second last in the Eastern Conference table. 

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Now the World Cup winner and eight-time Ballon d’Or winner has a clean slate in the form of a full MLS season ahead of him to wield his magic.  

Make no mistake about it: the pressure is on Messi to guide Miami into the playoffs and to continue to be the face of MLS. Wednesday’s standalone 2024 MLS regular season opener sees Miami host vs. Real Salt Lake, so it’s clear that Messi will be “the show” this year as the league attempts to become more of a global brand.   

Team to watch: Inter Miami 

All eyes will be on South Florida this season to see if Lionel Messi and his cast of international all-star teammates can help turn Inter Miami into an MLS Cup contender and propel them back into the playoffs for the first time since 2022. 

Not only does Inter Miami boast Messi, but his former FC Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez, 37, signed with the MLS club just before Christmas. Suárez plundered 158 goals in the six seasons he played alongside Messi at Barcelona, forming one of the most lethal 1-2 scoring punches in history.  

Suárez spent last season with Brazilian club Grêmio and the Uruguay international confirmed earlier this month he plans to retire this year. So, the 2024 MLS season will be his swan song as he reunites with Messi and Spanish greats Sergio Busquets, 35, and Jordi Alba, 34, two more former Barca teammates. 

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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