[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Expansion, playoffs, MLS Cup hosted by the highest surviving seed, Cosmos, referees, Beckham, player academies, a possible move of D.C. United ... there was all that and more during MLS commissioner Don Garber's annual “State of the League” teleconference call with reporters Thursday afternoon.
Thankfully, nobody brought up promotion and relegation during Commissioner Garber’s teleconference call with reporters Thursday. Perhaps that broken-down horse can finally be put out to pasture.
Just about everything else came up during a 30-minute question-and-answer session that followed about 20 minutes of opening remarks that, of course, bathed the league in a very favorable light. But unlike many past stagings of this annual event, Garber didn’t need to bend the truth until it screamed to create a positive spin.
In a dismal economy, with more established pro leagues suffering at the gate and one of them, the NBA, mired in a deep freeze of labor strife, MLS is stable and trending in the right direction. A stadium impasse for D.C. United, inevitable scheduling conflicts with outside competitions, a maligned playoff format, cloudy domestic and foreign financial forecasts, and a few struggling franchises are concerns yet hardly bellwethers of impending doom.
The league is riding momentum from a string of blockbuster expansion additions, a new television deal with a newly revamped TV network, and a spotty yet serious effort at player development.
An MLS Cup hosted by the highest remaining seed is likely to be formally approved by the Board of Governors, a significant statement, given that since day one it has held the title game at a pre-selected venue. As host, the Galaxy has already sold out MLS Cup to be played a week from Sunday, and is looking into ways to increase capacity at Home Depot Center.
The first question on the conference call, inevitably, concerned David Beckham, nearly done with a five-year contract and poised, perhaps, to help the Galaxy end its six-year championship drought. Selected to the Best XI on merit, not notoriety, and giving his team solid contributions in just about every appearance, he’s erased suspicions regarding his commitment to his club. But as to his future, well, nobody knows.
“I certainly hope to have him back,” said Garber of discussions among Beckham, his representatives, MLS, and AEG amid offers from foreign teams ranging from Xolos in Tijuana to Paris St. Germain in France. “David has delivered for us on all aspects beyond our expectations, on and off the field. David had a terrific year this year. It’s hard to argue that he wasn’t one of the more important players on our fields and really contributed to his team and the league.
“Lastly, I have to say MLS wouldn’t be what it is today if David didn’t decide in 2007 to come play in Major League Soccer. All of us appreciate everything that he’s done. It hasn’t been perfect, I don’t think any relationship is ever perfect. Certainly there are things we might have done a little differently, but all in all it’s been really a big success.”
The proposed unbalanced schedule – there will be a 34-game regular season in 2012, when Montreal becomes the 19th team – is a given, said Garber. Details are still being worked out and the league hopes to reveal details of the plan next week. It is aiming for the earliest release date – late December/early January – of its full schedule since the league started up in 1996. While defending the unbalanced schedule, aside from doing the math, Garber tends to get testy.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “I’ve described it this way, and I’ve been criticized for it. To me, it’s simple math. Thirty-eight games [when MLS grows to 20 teams] would be almost impossible for us to execute with the other competitions that we are required to play, the weather issues that we have, the stadium availability challenges that exist in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates. All the things that we have to do differently in the United States from what leagues have to abide by in other parts of the world.
“Most important from a competitive perspective is the travel impact in this country. We did some statistics on this, and I think you guys would be shocked to know that the [Vancouver] Whitecaps traveled almost 60,000 miles this year. And the clubs on the lower end traveled around 30,000 miles.”
MLS deserves some credit for tweaking its structure to help its teams compete in the Concacaf Champions League, to cite one example, and working its schedule around the FIFA international dates, which this season forced it to compress the playoffs into a 12-day window. Instead of each team playing all opponents once at home and once away, MLS will double down on regional clashes.
“It’s premature to talk about how it lays out, but I’ll talk broadly,” he said. “We believe rivalries are important, and help drive passion that fans have for their teams - and their desire to watch those clubs, and ultimately hate, on national television.
“One of our objectives is to grow our national fan base, and grow our television ratings. In order to do that, we believe it has to be done from within. Rivalries, we believe, will help be the fuel to drive that energy, and it’s a big part of our strategy.”
Many sports rivalries transcend regional proximity; the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins are bitter foes dating back nearly half a century, and Seattle fans are particularly disliked by their D.C United counterparts since the Sounders took the U.S. Open Cup at RFK in 2009. An unbalanced schedule would also deprive fans in certain markets from seeing certain teams – such as the defending champion -- in their stadiums but Garber believes other priorities are more important.
“There are a lot of factors that go into the decision to be unbalanced,” he said. “We have things that we are going to have to sacrifice.
“But we believe that at the end of the day, the benefits to what we are trying to achieve broadly and strategically, to achieve a vision of being one of the top leagues in the world, will be delivered with the schedule format that we’re going to come out with in a week.”
When asked about D.C. United’s stadium morass during last year’s address, Garber launched into a stinging tirade of frustration. This year’s response was terse yet calmer -- and thus, more ominous -- regarding the key issue of a possible move.
“We are, as I mentioned earlier, paying more to play at RFK than we are at any other stadium than we've ever played at in the history of the league, including stadiums like the Meadowlands,” said Garber. “And [we] have raccoons that are running around in the locker room.
“We need a solution, and I’ve been pushing [president] Kevin [Payne] and [operator-investor] Will Chang to try to find that solution. If that means that if they can’t get a new, improved lease in D.C., they have to move to another facility in the region, I will be supportive of that, and in fact will help them do that.
“And if it means they can’t find a solution in Baltimore, then we’ll have to go through a process – as we did with San Jose – to have to think about potentially moving the team.”
On other topics ..
Garber said despite ownership upheaval, the Cosmos continue to be among the possible groups to operate a second New York team, and other options include Detroit, Las Vegas, and Florida.
The playoff format, which this year was revamped to add two teams and institute play-in games for wild-card teams, is being evaluated.
He praised the TV partnership with Fox Soccer Channel that is about to end and hailed a new deal with NBC Sports Group that takes effect in 2012.