By Paul Gardner
It is fair to say that there are two main events at the end of each MLS season: the MLS Cup final, and the address by Commissioner Don Garber on the State of the League.
It’s Garber’s message that interests me here, but before going into that, I wish to deliver my own end-of-season address on The State of Don Garber. Frankly, I’m concerned. Nothing to do with what he said in his own statement -- which was largely, and justifiably, positive and delivered with a firm confidence that never brimmed over into boasting. (Of course, there were a couple of things that didn’t sound right -- we’ll come to those in a moment).
My worries about the Commish have to do with the way he behaves when he runs into cold weather. Most recently, in Kansas City, during the KC-Houston playoff game, when the temperature was 21 degrees, with a wind chill factor of 10, when all the crowd shots showed fans swaddled in heavy clothing, and particularly with hats. In the midst of all that, here comes Garber without a hat, looking almost flimsily dressed. What is this -- a tough guy act?
I don’t think so -- we’ve seen it before -- I think it was during the MLS Cup in Toronto in 2010, another decidedly chilly event. It’s Commissioner Garber trying to convince people that it isn’t really cold out there, that MLS is not doing anything wrong by scheduling its most important games in hostile winter months.
But this looks like a dangerous obsession. Tomorrow, it’ll be Kansas City again, where the forecast is for 25 degrees. I fear the low temperature may goad Garber into an even more frantic display of defiance. Garber down on the field, presenting the post-game trophies in his underwear? That’s the sort of trouble that obsessions get you into. What Garber should be into tomorrow are things like woolly coats and scarves and hats. Bundle up, Don.
Garber has other, much milder obsessions. Call them ambitions. Like the one about 2022, the year MLS becomes one of the world’s great leagues. Nine years to go, so why not? In two words: single entity. That will have to go if MLS is serious about joining the wider world of soccer. The alternative would be for the rest of the world to switch to single entity. And, you know, Garber seemed to be hinting something like that when, in his State of the League address, he told us how “when we travel round the world” the MLS economic model is admired globally, “they want to know about it.”
Within the confines of the USA and Canada -- and the cocoon of single entity -- MLS has plenty to feel good about, despite the fact that it is, in Garber’s words, “an emerging league” and “still loses money as an enterprise.”
Garber feels good -- with reason -- about the growth of the sport, the multiplying number of soccer specific stadiums, the growing fan interest, and the prospects for expansion.
That is more than enough to give his address an authentic up-beat flavor. But when he talks about player development, he is on shakier ground. His views of college soccer need revising, they are bogged down by an unrealistically rosy vision of what college can do. He has to know that, without large and fundamental changes in its structure, college soccer will neverbe a satisfactory source of pro players.
Garber is not about to admit that -- but he did make a statement that I have never before heard any top soccer figure venture. He criticized the college game. A gentle criticism, to be sure, but it was a statement that could mark the beginning of a refusal on the part of the bulk of the soccer community in this country to continue meekly accepting whatever the college people decide upon, regardless of its value to the sport at large. Right after he had vowed to “continue to support the college system any way we can,” Garber speculated that the colleges could “perhaps start looking at adapting a bit, so that we can collectively develop the American game better ...” Yes it is a mild rebuke -- but it surely represents a welcome break with the hidebound thinking of the past.
The colleges are not, cannot be, part of player development. If anything, they represent player stagnation, even regression. The growth of the academy system is, to a large extent, a response to the growing awareness that something else, something -- like the impressive new MLS stadiums -- more soccer specificis needed.
Inevitably, Garber proudly flaunts the $20 million a year that he says MLS clubs spend on player development. But this can be utterly misleading, because it is quite clear that massive investment in providing the best facilities and the “best” coaching and so on is no guarantee at all that top level players will be produced.
For that to be more likely, intangible things like attitude and vision and style have to be correct. The U.S. game has a way to go in that aspect of youth development. American soccer, and that includes MLS, has not been -- and still is not -- particularly good at making the most of the abundant talent that this country offers.