Lionel Messi is making the move to MLS, following a long line of stars who found success in Europe but came stateside to add a new chapter towards the end of their careers. The Argentine legend has announced that he’ll be joining Inter Miami and diving headfirst into the top flight of North American soccer.

So what awaits him in his new league?

Some peculiarities, that’s for sure. While a lot about MLS is no different from what Messi has experienced in Spain and France, there are a few things about the league that are unlike anywhere else.

Playoffs!? It’s all about playoffs

Right off the bat, we have a thing Messi’s never really had to think about before in his career: a postseason!

Whereas most of the world — and indeed, wherever Messi has previously played — crowns the champion at the end of a long season that sees every team play each other home and away before handing the silverware to the club with the most points, that’s not the case in MLS.

Teams play a 34-match regular season and the one with the most points after that is awarded a fan-created trophy called the Supporters’ Shield — but that is just the warmup for the pinnacle of the campaign: the MLS Cup playoffs. Many fans consider the Supporters’ Shield a major trophy, while the commissioner once ignored it and instead congratulated the Shield winner on clinching the “top seed” for the playoffs.

The league is split into two conferences, the East and West, and the top nine teams in each after the regular season qualify for the playoffs. Those 18 teams play what is essentially a mini-tournament, with the final two meeting in MLS Cup for the right to call themselves the league champion. That’s how New York City FC finished the 2021 season in fourth in the East standings, but went on to be crowned the champion.

Some have argued that this format devalues much of the season. After all, 62% of the teams make the postseason, so how much do wins in the first few months really matter? (With 15 points at the halfway point and 17 games left, Messi’s new team could still make up ground once he’s in the team.) That’s a fair critique, but when you get to the playoffs and you have teams fighting for the league’s ultimate crown in a tournament format, the stakes are enormous and it’s thrilling to watch.

Plus, there’s no such thing as running away with the title like we see in other leagues — like Messi’s Barcelona did so often in LaLiga — so you’re going to be watching all the way to the end.

There’s no relegation

Dropping down a division isn’t something Messi needed to worry about before because let’s face it — neither Barcelona nor PSG, however disappointing, have ever come remotely close to the wrong end of the table before. Inter Miami have not been good this season, but that’s OK too because MLS isn’t just different at the top in how it crowns a champion. It’s also very different at the bottom because there is no relegation. The league is self-contained, with no pyramid of teams below.

MLS has its teams, which are decided through owners buying their way in through franchise fees, and that’s it — those are the teams — so if you have a terrible season and finish last it’s nothing more than an embarrassment. You get to start the following year on equal footing with everyone else in the league. Austin FC, for instance, finished second-last in 2021 and then in 2022 ended up second place in the West and reached the playoff semifinals.

Ask any American soccer fan and they’ll tell you how promotion and relegation would make things more interesting at the bottom, penalize incompetent or uncaring clubs and help player development by further incentivizing clubs in the lower leagues. It’s not a fresh complaint, but club owners pay hundreds of millions of dollars for new teams in part because they know that once they get into MLS, they’re there to stay. No amount of ineptitude or poor performances will change that.

The season runs from February to December — get your scarves and mittens

Messi’s played just about everywhere on earth at this point, but remember the cliche about wanting to see him do it on a rainy midweek night in Stoke, just to see if he could handle the brutal conditions and defending? That’s nothing compared to what awaits in North America.

Most of the world begins its seasons in August and plays until the end of May before taking the summer off. That’s not the case in MLS, where the season is built specifically so the league can play through the summer.

While large parts of North America suffer through wind and bitter cold in the winter, the summer is a time to sit outside, have some beverages and often take in a sport. Baseball has built a multibillion-dollar industry in large part on those excellent vibes. When MLS launched, the leaders asked themselves: “Do we want to try to lure people to this outdoor sport every weekend in cold and rain or snow, or do we want to offer them sun and warmth?” The league opted not to follow the calendar widely used in Europe, tailoring its seasons to the U.S. climate.

But just because the league plays through the summer doesn’t mean weather isn’t a problem. A lot of cities in North America get very hot and humid; when Wayne Rooney signed with D.C. United in 2018, he felt it in a bad way. He said: “I was just so hot, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?'”

It’s not only the heat that can be a problem. After all, the bulk of the season is in the summer but it starts and finishes in the winter.

It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit when the Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids kicked off an early-season 2019 game in a field blanketed by snow and the temperature kept plummeting so that by the end of it, as one player put it: “My hands were frozen. I couldn’t feel my fingertips or my toes.”

In 2013, the league title was determined in an MLS Cup match that kicked off in 20-degree weather with severe winds that had some reporters’ keyboards in the open-air press box stuck frozen.

It’s a very big league — literally — and the travel can be brutal

The league spans most of a continent. When Messi and Inter Miami go to play the Vancouver Whitecaps, they’ll be flying 2,801 miles, or farther than Barcelona to Baku, Azerbaijan. The flight to western Canada will take about seven hours from Miami. Compare that with Messi’s longest trips in LaLiga — an hour and half to Sevilla or two hours to face Celta Vigo. Ligue 1 was even more compact: Paris to either Toulouse or Nice could be done in less than 90 minutes.

Oh, and it’s not out of the question that the flight could be commercial. When he played for D.C. United, Rooney once tweeted: “Looking forward to a 12 hour travel day which could be done in 6 but hey this is mls.”

MLS has officially eased its restrictions on charter flights in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the league to do away with commercial flights entirely, allowing teams to charter every flight for the 2023 season. But if the league wants to start enforcing caps on charter flights again, it could. Does Messi want an aisle or window seat?

Not all venues are quite to the level of Spotify Camp Nou or Parc des Princes

As a global star suiting up for two of the biggest teams around, Messi is used to pristine playing surfaces in front of gigantic, sell-out crowds. He’ll find some of that in the U.S., but it will also be a rude awakening on other away trips.

Some MLS teams play in giant, state-of-the-art, multibillion-dollar stadiums built to host NFL teams like Atlanta United do in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Most play in nice, purpose-built stadiums that seat 18,000 to 30,000 people, have a roof and look like the soccer stadiums you’ll find anywhere in the world.

But there are some, ahem, exceptions. New York City FC plays at Yankee Stadium, a baseball stadium that is awkward at best for soccer, except for when they play at Citi Field, a different baseball stadium that is equally awkward for soccer. And when they can’t play in either of those, they play in their rival’s home, Red Bull Arena, which is pretty funny. (Imagine Man United needing to borrow Man City’s stadium because of a scheduling conflict.)

NYCFC has proposed a new stadium to be built for the 2027 season in Queens, New York, but Messi’s contract with Miami is reportedly only for 2½ years, so he’ll probably be playing in a baseball stadium while he’s in MLS.

Even the place Messi will call home, DRV PNK Stadium, is unusual. It’s not even in Miami — it’s in Fort Lauderdale, about a 40-minute drive from the city without traffic — and it is entirely temporary, built as a modular venue that was designed to be disassembled. It is expected to be Inter Miami’s home only until the club is finished building the 25,000-seat Miami Freedom Park, planned for 2025.

Artificial turf is a reality

Even some of the amazing venues around MLS aren’t necessarily the best for players. The aforementioned Mercedes-Benz Stadium has an artificial turf surface, as do five other stadiums in the league. The turf makes it easier to shift between soccer and American football, concerts and other events, often with sliding/retractable or modular playing surfaces that can be swapped around depending on what’s being hosted there.

Players do not enjoy the artificial turf, though, claiming it is harder on their bodies and makes them more susceptible to injury — and European stars who didn’t need to play on artificial turf previously have especially taken exception. Zlatan Ibrahimovic raged against it with the LA Galaxy, saying he’d only play on it if it was “life or death,” and Thierry Henry famously declined to play in nearly every game on a non-grass surface when he was part of the New York Red Bulls.

Superstars David Beckham and Robbie Keane were vocal about the scourge of fake turf on A Galaxy trips to Toronto, to name just one such away day, too. Meanwhile, solutions against artificial surfaces are also flawed: Messi had an injury scare of his own in 2015 when Argentina played a friendly against Mexico at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. The stadium’s owners obliged requests for real grass to be laid over the artificial, which was almost worse when Messi slipped and twisted his knee.

Over the years, the number of venues featuring natural grass has increased, but for the foreseeable future it appears artificial turf in MLS is here to stay.

Less-than-ideal surfaces are not limited to artificial turf, by the way. The field at Yankee Stadium is too small to fit a regulation pitch and the grass that gets laid over the dirt baseball infield makes for some funny bounces and more challenging close control in possession. Messi is the king with the ball at his feet, but expect the playing surfaces to be a fun variable.

The U.S. Open Cup takes teams to some interesting locales

Artificial turf or a world-class baseball stadium pale in comparison to the strange venues MLS teams find themselves in when they play in the U.S. Open Cup.

The tournament, which was founded in 1914 and is the country’s oldest soccer competition, sees teams in the top flight playing teams down several divisions, including semi-pro clubs. That means games against clubs many people have never heard of, potentially in cities that are unknown to most.

This season, Minnesota United played Detroit City at Keyworth Stadium, which is owned by Hamtramck Public Schools and hosts high school games. The San Jose Earthquakes played Monterey Bay FC at Cardinale Stadium, a 6,000-seat venue at Cal State University. And the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Birmingham Legion made dream runs to the quarterfinals.

Other teams that have played against MLS competition include the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who play in a defunct baseball stadium, and the Harrisburg City Islanders, who play in a current minor league baseball stadium. Christos FC, an amateur team representing Christos Discount Liquors in Maryland, didn’t get to host D.C. United when they met a few years back, but that would’ve been even more memorable.

So, if you think seeing Messi play in a borrowed baseball stadium is bizarre, just wait and see whether he plays a U.S. Open Cup match in a baseball stadium that is, well, not major league.

Say hello to the All-Star Game

If Messi’s arrived in the U.S. in time, will he get picked? It’s hard to think that he wouldn’t. After all the All-Star Game is an American sports staple, a midseason exhibition game that features the best players in a good-natured contest that’s more about the celebrity and parties as anything else.

MLS has an All-Star Game of its own, and the format is usually a team of the best MLS players taking on a team from abroad. Sometimes the opposing team is a European club on their preseason tour, like this year when Arsenal will play in the All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., and sometimes it’s an all-star team from Mexico’s Liga MX.

The gist of the game is to show off the league’s best players, some of whom are voted onto the team by fans. But the players don’t always want be there, to the extent that the league instituted a one-game ban for any non-injured players who skip it. Zlatan was once slapped with a suspension under the rule, telling reporters at the time: “It think it is ridiculous, but yeah, no comments. They do whatever they want. I come from a different world, I come from the real world.”

The MLS commissioner also gets to name some players to the All-Star team, and he likes to make sure the league’s biggest stars are there. In 2015, that meant choosing Steven Gerrard, despite the fact that he had just joined the LA Galaxy weeks earlier and had barely played. It also meant featuring Frank Lampard, who hadn’t even played for New York City FC yet, so the All-Star Game was technically his MLS debut.

Maybe Messi will make his MLS debut at this year’s game on July 19?

There are a lot of complicated roster rules with silly acronyms

The Argentina star is used to playing with teammates from all over the world and, generally speaking, the highest caliber of players given where he’s been in Barcelona and Paris. Those clubs could acquire whomever they wanted — it’s up to you whether you see that as a good or a bad thing — while being mindful of UEFA’s Financial Fair play rules, but Messi will find there’s no such open market in MLS.

The closest thing that European soccer has to spending rules is that they can’t spend so much more than they make, but in his new league, the rules are much more stringent and convoluted.

For a start, MLS has a salary cap that places a maximum amount clubs can spend on their rosters. Sounds straightforward, right? Not so fast. There are a lot of exceptions.

There are Designated Players, which essentially allow a team to sign up to three players whose pay is not fully counted against the salary cap. The rule was created so the LA Galaxy could sign David Beckham and has since been used to sign both big name stars like Messi now, or bright young talents like Miguel Almíron, who starred at Atlanta United before being transferred for a big profit to Newcastle United.

There’s also so-called Homegrown Players, who come through clubs’ academies. They don’t count against the salary cap.

And then there are the acronyms, GAM and TAM, which you should get used to hearing if you want to follow MLS trades. (Oh yeah, in MLS, players are constantly traded to other teams in the league, which is unusual in European soccer but common in American sports. Transfers in and out of MLS are common too, but from team-to-team, player swaps or trades for GAM and TAM are the norm.)

GAM is General Allocation Money and TAM is Targeted Allocation Money, which are doled out to teams annually and can be traded among teams to essentially create extra money that raise each team’s salary cap. Make sense? Don’t worry if it doesn’t. Even some people who work for clubs barely understand every roster mechanism. Messi’s new team, Inter Miami, was once fined a league-record $2 million for violating these rules.

This might be a good time to explain that MLS is a single-entity league, meaning all the team owners are technically investors in the league together. Player contracts are centrally executed by the league itself, not individual teams, which is why the league is in the position to “allocate” money to teams through these roster rules.

While teams within LaLiga and Ligue 1 compete directly with one another for players, MLS runs the show and makes sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why Messi’s negotiations to join Inter Miami reportedly took place at the league-level, including a cut of revenue from the league’s streaming packages.

Hopefully he’s understanding that his side will have to be more creative in how they build around him given all the rules and regulations.

Journalists get access to the locker rooms

In much of the world, journalists get to ask players questions at a news conference or maybe a mixed zone, which is a designated area players walk through to and from the locker room. In MLS, keeping with American sport standards, journalists get to walk straight into locker rooms after games and interview anyone they choose. In fact, the league mandates locker rooms be open for such media access.

When Josef Martinez joined Atlanta United after stints in Europe and South America, he found the practice difficult to adjust to, saying: “Honestly, it’s very strange. I feel that there’s a certain level of respect that’s lost when it comes to the intimacy of the team, the group.” Teammate González Pírez agreed, saying that in Argentina, “not even the coaches have access to the locker room” and “it’s a sacred place.”

So if Messi just scored a hat trick, or maybe had a difficult game and is frustrated and bruised, he might be greeted by journalists waiting at his locker expecting him answer questions. Messi has done just about everything a soccer player can do, but that will be a new one for him.

Welcome to MLS, Leo!