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Don Garber: 'We're a long-term play.'
by Ridge Mahoney, March 24th, 2009 7AM

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[MLS] Not for a few years will it be known if aggressive expansion by MLS owners in the five-year period from 2007 to 2011 is brazen or brilliant, or both. By adding Toronto, San Jose, Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland in that span, assuming all goes as planned, the league will have increased its membership sharply from 12 to 18 teams. It will have banked more than $150 million in expansion fees, greatly expanded its national TV footprint, and added some of North America's largest markets.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber concedes the future is murky at best and foreboding at worst, not just for MLS investors and those who might yet come aboard, but just about everybody.

 

"I think it is impossible to tell," says Garber, who will celebrate his 10th anniversary as league commissioner in August. "It's unusual for us as Americans to wake up this way, because we're born with an optimism that exists just as part of our character, and a lot of that optimism has been knocked out of the system. We wake up every day thinking tomorrow is going to be worse instead of better, which is unusual in our society."

By adding three teams in the Northwest, MLS officials see a similar frisson of regional competition as exists in the Northeast and between the Texas teams, the Los Angeles teams, etc. Adding more teams in the Western time zone can increase the chances of a weekly doubleheader televised nationally as well as drive up attendances through traveling fans crisscrossing the three Northwest cities, and the Philadelphia franchise will draw fans from three states, with several rivals within range of cars or trains.

"It's a very positive story," says Garber. "From the geographic standpoint, our sport is built on rivalries. It drives the game of football in England, it drives it in Italy, in Spain, in Brazil and we need it to drive it in our country, too. Now that we have a team [Vancouver] just up the road from Seattle, which is obviously doing very, very well, bodes well for the future of our league."

Adding Portland gives the Sounders a foe to the south as well, and rekindles long-standing rivalries not only from the NASL days, but those of the USL. Hard-fought meetings during the USL regular season and in the playoffs will carry over, since some of the players will be the same and so will be the team uniforms, more or less, and nicknames, which, again, mirror those of the NASL days.

MLS has taken some steps to maintain the level of play amid rapid expansion, increasing the slots available for foreign players while reducing rosters from 28 to 24 players. Teams can field as many as 20 on the regular roster but only four developmental players. That does cut down the potential pool, though few players on the final few rungs of the roster in past seasons contributed significantly.

Teams can't rely on outside sources for players indefinitely. In the next few years MLS needs to coordinate its youth-team programs with some sort of reserve team and find a viable alternative to the Reserve Division, which it terminated after the 2008 season. Like Seattle, Vancouver and Portland will come into MLS staffed by executives, officials, employees, players and coaches building towards their entry into the top tier.

The effects of expansion on quality of play will bear watching in the next few seasons, though Seattle has apparently done a pretty good job of stocking its roster. As with just about everything else, quality of players is largely a function of funds, which MLS is notoriously selective about disbursing.

The collective bargaining agreement between the MLS Players Union and MLS expires at the end of the season; on the one hand, banking expansion money is a tough stance from which to insist on holding the bottom line, yet high unemployment figures and economic gloom would strengthen whatever frugal measures the league might prefer.

Says Garber, "We're a long-term play. The times we're going through, while challenging for all of us, are temporary. We need to be sure when we come out of the recession we're positioned for growth, with strong investors in the right markets and good facilities."

 



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