[MLS SPOTLIGHT]Three days before the start of MLS's 18th season, MLS Commissioner Don Garber took to the digital world to address fans and the media via a live Google+ Hangout in New York. Garber said the league's goal is to be one of the world's top leagues in 10 years. He admitted the league has a ways to go in terms of the quality of play on the field and in terms of television ratings, but the league is hopeful it can follow the model of the NHL, which parlayed strong local fan bases and local passions into a growing national television audience.
The 2013 season is a critical year for MLS. It's the first time since 2004 that it doesn't welcome a new team or open a new soccer stadium. Attendance has climbed to record levels -- up 17 percent since 2010 to an average of 18,801 a game in 2012 -- but much that of increase came thanks to the launch of new teams or opening of new stadiums.
There was expansion in Philadelphia in 2010, Portland and Vancouver in 2011 and Montreal in 2012 and the opening of new stadiums in New York in 2010, Sporting Kansas City in 2011 and Houston in 2012. All averaged 18,000 fans a game or more in 2012.
Seattle arrived in 2009 and it has broken the league attendance record four years in a row, growing its fans base from an average of 30,943 in its first year to 43,144.
How do MLS teams keep growing local support? And most important, how does they develop national followings?
MLS's national television ratings lag behind those for major soccer events like the Men's and Women's World Cup and European Championship, not to mention other U.S. sports leagues.
Garber insisted ESPN'sJohn Skipper isn't concerned about the ratings and NBC came in last year, knowing full well what the ratings picture was.
"Media and others look at it perhaps more than broadcasters and league do," Garber said. "That being said, you need to grow, grow your audience and one of the measures of that growth is on television."
Garber said the league is looking at what the NHL -- whose ratings have exploded in recent years on NBC -- have done to create national interest and in perhaps the first admission that the current schedule isn't working, he added that MLS's playoffs are "in the most competitive part of the American and Canadian broadcast calendar" and "that might be something we might have to take a look at changing."
Garber said respect for MLS is perhaps greater abroad than it is at home, noting MLS's average attendance is now higher than it is in France's Ligue 1 and MLS has growing respect in France, where league officials met this week with French league and federation officials to celebrate the launch of the French federation's academy certification program for MLS academy coaches.
Garber said some MLS owners were willing to spend more on players to make their teams more competitive in the world but the league can't afford to destroy the financial balance that has allowed it to survive and grow.
"How do we raise our quality?" he said. "We have a ways to go to achieve that."
Garber says MLS's homegrown efforts will lead to the development of more and better players. The big issue is, how does the league keep them?
"If it were up to me," he said, "and if it was a perfect world, one that I controlled ever -- and no commissioner controls anything -- we'd never sell a player."
But if MLS's goal is to become a "destination league," as he described it, the league must first be a stay-put league.
That conflict was again evident in the offseason when the league lost two players to the English Premier League -- Brek Shea to Stoke City and Kei Kamara on loan to Norwich City -- and Andy Najar -- the league's first homegrown player sold to a foreign club, to Belgian champion Anderlecht.
Garber said the league was involved in the discussion about Shea's future.
"We wanted to Brek to stay in the league," he said, "and I think it would have good in our opinion for Brek's career development. Brek believed that it would be better for him play for Stoke. He had his first start [sic] just a week ago and we hope it is good for his career. We live in this world where we've got to satisfy the league's needs but also satisfy the players' needs. That's part of the dynamic of professional soccer."
Garber argued that the outflow of MLS players was overrated.
"I will say that far more players come in," he said, "and far fewer players leave than I think the public and the media understand."
But the issue isn't perhaps so much how many players come and go but who comes and goes. Indeed, MLS's failure to keep the best and brightest for something less than their entire careers will be its greatest obstacle in terms of generating the national interest it needs to become a national league.
Perhaps that's why Landon Donovan's hiatus from the Los Angeles Galaxy has been such a hot topic. Garber said he appreciated Donovan's desire to take a break from soccer.
"This young guy has been holding the responsibility as the leader of the sport on the field since he was 15, 16 years old [sic]," he said. "None of us have had to do what Landon has had to do. Think about it. It’s unprecedented for a single athlete in a professional sport."