Commentary

MLS: a Soccer League without a Soccer Voice

By Paul Gardner

A few names to consider: Dick Walsh, Ken Macker, Bob Cousy, David Prouty, Howard Samuels, Doug Logan. All of them, within the past 50 years, have been Commissioners of American pro-soccer leagues. And not one of them had more than the flimsiest knowledge of the sport. Fittingly, none of them lasted very long in their soccer jobs.

In terms of scanty soccer knowledge, there is another name that belongs on that list: Don Garber, currently Commissioner of MLS. Garber, though, is the odd man out. He has held his job for 15 years which means he must be doing quite a lot right.

I think so. MLS, about to enter its 20th season, has outlived the old NASL by a couple of years. Garber has overseen its sometimes wobbly but mostly steady growth since 1999. He is now the front man for a league that has grown from 10 to 20 teams, has built 10 soccer-specific stadiums with more on the way, is about to sign American soccer’s most-lucrative-ever TV deal, and aims to expand to 24 teams by the end of the decade.

During that time, Garber’s ease and confidence before the TV cameras has greatly increased. So, evidently, has his sense of job security -- he can now make jokes about “when they throw me out,” a liberty never before heard from previous (and precarious) soccer commissioners.

Garber, nevertheless, represents a problem for MLS. It is the same problem posed by all those defunct commissioners I mentioned earlier. Namely: The fact that we have a soccer league whose visible leader, whose spokesman, is someone who cannot speak with authority about the sport itself.

Garber deserves some credit here, for never trying to set himself up as a soccer expert (which some of the other guys did try). He knows enough to know that he will not be listened to. Internally, his word on soccer matters will not be listened to by the MLS coaches or the players or the referees. Why should it be? A response of “What the hell does he know about it?” is likely, a comeback which Garber cannot contest.

That is true, even if Garber should happen to have a thoroughly sensible notion. As he did several seasons ago, when, as part of his state of the league address, he appealed for refereeing that gave more protection to skilled players. An appeal that had no noticeable effect whatever.

This year’s state of the league address -- expertly delivered by Garber -- contained no references to the sport as played on the field. That is a bit odd, when you think about it. A league whose task it is to popularize the sport, yet when the commissioner gives his round-up of the year’s activity, he never gets into the playing of the sport, never talks about what the live sport looks like.

Odd indeed. But it becomes worryingly odd when you realize that not one of the journalists invited to ask questions had anything to say about the live sport either. I’ll take just one example of a topic that surely ought to have come up: Refereeing. A topic that always comes up when soccer people gather to chat about their sport.

It happens to be a soccer topic, one that can only really be discussed by someone well versed in the rules of the game, in the history of those rules, and in the subtleties and intricacies of the sport. A topic that Garber is not equipped to handle.

But as I remarked, the topic did not come up. Which is worth pondering. This year Garber’s state of the league address was given a new format. No more phone-in questions from journalists. Instead we had Garber sitting down with a group of five journalists. That’s right, just five. These were not randomly selected journalists, nor did they represent any of the major U.S. newspapers. These were journalists from -- to use Garber’s words -- “our broadcast partners.”

This comfortable scene was streamed for all to see. Garber gave his 10-minute address while our broadcast partners sat there and did rather a lot of head nodding. Then came the questions. All were questions that allowed Garber to state -- without being contradicted, and certainly not grilled -- the official MLS position on things like the upcoming collective bargaining agreement talks, expansion, Canadian issues, the international calendar, promotion and relegation. Three fans were allowed phone-in questions.

But no state-of-the-game, as distinct from state-of-the-league, questions cropped up. The unavoidable implication of this new set-up for Garber’s address is that it is designed to protect him from potentially embarrassing questions.

That is not how the boss of MLS should be positioning himself. All the issues that Garber dealt with are genuine matters of interest. But so is refereeing. And so is the style, and the caliber of play in MLS. It is not acceptable that such important matters can be dodged.

If Garber cannot speak about them -- and he cannot, that is a fact -- then there should be someone else at MLS with that responsibility. Who might that be? I have no idea. Perhaps you can work it out, by going on line, into the MLS website, then on to MLS Executives, and trying to find someone with a likely sounding title. Director of Soccer, say. Forget it. Thirteen executives, including Garber, are listed. None has a title that includes the word soccer. So we have executives dealing with things like marketing, business, finance, administration, consumer products, communications, and sponsorship ... but none whose responsibility is the game itself.

As MLS was being born, back in 1996, we got a surprise when Alan Rothenberg announced that he would not, as everyone had expected, be the commissioner. Instead, the job went to Doug Logan, a soccer know-nothing whom no one had ever heard of. But Logan would get help -- his deputy commissioner would be Sunil Gulati.

In theory, at least, that was a sensible arrangement. I would have preferred co-commissioners, without assigning seniority. But the presence of an authoritative soccer person in the No. 2 MLS slot was encouraging. An arrangement that worked for three years, until Logan fired Gulati. MLS does still have a deputy commissioner, but the position is now occupied by Mark Abbott, a lawyer who cannot be described as a soccer person.

This is not only unsatisfactory, it is patently absurd. I am not blaming Garber for any of this. He is merely a prime example of what appears to be happening to the sport worldwide: A take-over of the sport by the marketing fraternity, with the consequent subordination of the soccer guys.

Admittedly, MLS seems to have taken this further than any other pro soccer league. It is probably the only league that has no soccer-knowledgeable executives (if it does have such executives, it is doing a very good, and very puzzling, job of hiding their identities).

MLS, as a fledgling league, needs guidance and leadership. Garber has been, still is, busy guiding the league through the perils of market forces. But there is no soccer voice to be heard, no one to make decisions about the nature and quality of, to use the marketing word, “the product.”

Maybe the necessary business acumen and the soccer expertise cannot be found in one person. In which case the idea of dual commissioners -- with separate responsibilities, one in business matters, the other in strictly soccer concerns -- should be explored.

At the very least, such a partnership should make it possible for the two commissioners to conduct a genuine Q&A session with journalists, something much to be preferred to the sight and sound of Garber chatting cosily with “our broadcast partners.”

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17 comments about "MLS: a Soccer League without a Soccer Voice".
  1. Brian Something, December 20, 2014 at 8:34 a.m.

    The problem with the job of commissioner - in any sports league - is that he or she is not hired to be an expert on that particular sport. He is hired to be an expert in business. Who are his employers? The fans? The players? The coaches? No. The businesspeople owners. That's just the reality.

  2. Albert Harris, December 20, 2014 at 8:44 a.m.

    Well said, Paul. I actually think that Garber has done an excellent job guiding the league from a business side, his admitted area of expertise. At least he deserves credit for outliving the old NASL and looking strong going forward. But we really need a soccer person to deal with the actual product on the field as opposed to the business aspect. I have no more idea than you however who the business types would allow. I would hope someone in the mold of Claudio Reyna who would try to bend the league more toward skillful play rather than an all out physical game. Just one man's opinion.

  3. Christopher Tallmadge, December 20, 2014 at 8:57 a.m.

    I don't think the Commissioner needs to be an expert about the game on the field. What did the greatest of them all, Pete Rozelle, know about playing football? A look at the league officials in the other sports reveals a plethora of former players in key positions where they can have some influence on the games. No reason for MLS to not have former players in positions to influence the way MLS games are played.

  4. John Soares, December 20, 2014 at 2:03 p.m.

    Respectfully disagree, to some extent. The commissioner needs to manage the league in such a way that it is successful. Stays in business, grows, improves... I'll take Garber over Blatter and many other "soccer" experts worldwide!!! That is not to say "game issues" should not be addressed. However the State of the League address is not necessarily the place for it. It was and should be about the BIG picture. Just saying....

  5. Jeffrey Organ, December 20, 2014 at 5:31 p.m.

    I agree with Paul to a certain extent, but the state of the league's administration should surprise nobody.
    When you get down to it, the worldwide game is all about money and the MLS executive structure reflects this. Pretty clear why. On a global basis, there are only 10-15 clubs that matter. These mega-clubs are the ones that spend the big dollars on star power and then constantly talk about nonsense like branding. The general public feeds this and the U.S. fans are as guilty as anywhere. How many Real Madrid or Manchester United fans have we all encountered here who have zero connection to the club, never traveled to Europe, are clueless about "their clubs" history prior to 2000 (and that time frame is being generous) and are the first in line to bitch that their oligarch doesn't dole out 100 million Euros on a signing when their club loses 2 games in a row. Exhibit number one for this is American here who claims to be a Manchester City fan.
    This is the economic world that our MLS owners want to play in some day. You get there by hiring business and marketing people....not soccer people. The game itself is kind of irrelevant anyway when their is money to be made.

  6. Kent James, December 20, 2014 at 6:12 p.m.

    Garber has done an admirable job with the difficult task of growing the sport economically, but PG is right, someone needs to mind the product. I don't know if a deputy commissioner in charge of soccer would be the right approach, but it would at least be a start. Former players holding executive jobs (as Christopher suggested) would help, but I'm not sure if they would have the necessary business acumen (surely some would, but others maybe not). It is vital that when decisions that impact the game are being made, at least someone (and I would suggest you need more than one) with soccer experience should be involved.

  7. R2 Dad, December 21, 2014 at 1:29 a.m.

    Hmmm. I agree w/ PG here, but having voices asking that "the product" be considered will definitely present opposing views that will simply not be tolerated. What we seem to have is a benevolent dictator, but under what conditions will he continue to succeed? I would be much more likely to jump on-board the MLS bandwagon if I'm given a timeline on progress, with mileposts where specific improvements will be taken up: club ownership of contracts, increase in homegrown players required on the pitch, agreements with competing leagues that will form a pro-rel relationship. These types of agreements would lessen the power of the dictator while at the same time strengthening the league. It would take a commissioner of exceptionally strong character to plan for his eventual replacement, but all strong boards of Fortune 100 companies have succession plans. Just don't expect it from Emperor Garber. MLS deserves a knowledgeable soccer man at the head of the table, but I see no way that will happen until a crisis forces Garber out.

  8. Zoe Willet, December 21, 2014 at 2:04 a.m.

    Well maybe this explains his intransigence on the subject of promotion/relegation, which is without a doubt the most illogical, addlepated stance possible.

  9. Robert Corolla, December 21, 2014 at 3:04 a.m.

    #GarberOut.

    Garber is a disaster of a commissioner. He's nothing more than an NFL puppet. He knows NOTHING about the sport of REAL football. He's blinded by greed from expansion fees. If you know anything about the history of footy in America, then you know the REAL reason NASL failed back in the day is because of over - expansion. And MLS is repeating those same fatal mistakes.
    MLS has far too many NFL owners and league execs who know nothing of the sport of real football, and as a result are keeping this league from truly growing to its potential. MLS will always be "Mickey Mouse" as long as Abbott and Garber are in charge.
    Footy fans in America deserve a league with a commissioner who actually cares about the sport, and actually knows the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick BEFORE he takes the job as commissioner, unlike Garber admittedly did.

  10. Kent James, December 21, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.

    Zoe, kudos on the description of the intransigence on promotion/relegation as "addlepated"; great word. But while I certainly support your position because I love the way promotion/relegation battles give the teams at the bottom everything to fight for (in stark contrast to the major American sports where bottom dwelling teams are rewarded with higher draft picks by losing more), I think it will take some time (10-20 more years) before that is realistic in the US. It is hard for investors (especially in expansion teams) to justify building a stadium if they might be relegated to a minor league very quickly (which would probably bankrupt them). Once the MLS expansion is finalized (22 teams?), and the teams are all well established (and the minor leagues have also gained strength), then I think we can institute promotion/relegation. So I don't think its absence is Garber's fault, but I do look forward to the day.

  11. Nate Nelson, December 21, 2014 at 11:48 a.m.

    Garber is like any other communist leader answering only prepared questions. The hidden knowledge of who owns what and earns how much a year between MLS, SUM, USSF even the US Soccer foundation, who is making money from America Soccer! its not for public consumption. There is not transparency in the sport and I ask the final question: how many soccer fields could have been built with Cluck Blazer's money. A select small group is control the sport in America and getting very rich and they said shut up and play or don't play we're in charge!

  12. Tim Schum, December 22, 2014 at 9:08 a.m.

    Perhaps MLS needs to identify someone like baseball's Joe Torre. He was in charge of many of the aspects of the on-field game, including as I recall, improving umpiring. The problem is that almost all the retired players have focused almost entirely on their playing careers with their post-retirement goals usually focused on entering the coaching field. Or - becoming involved as television commentators. Someone like Bruce Arena might be ideal. Smart (Cornell grad), very knowledgeable, transparent, etc. Unfortunately he will probably be 75 years old when he tires of coaching and looks for other worlds to conquer.

  13. beautiful game, December 22, 2014 at 10:04 a.m.

    It's people, product, and process; at each category, the MLS has its up and downs. People, some good and some not so good; and the latter continue to be in place; why?. Product, except for a few teams, the overall product is mediocre; and expansion will dilute it even more. The TV commentary and camera jumping is out of control and provides nothing of consistency for the TV viewer. Bottom line is that much needs to be re-worked or tweaked.

  14. Gak Foodsource, December 22, 2014 at 1:29 p.m.

    Great article Paul. I disagree with those who are satisfied with a commissioner knowledgeable about only business/marketing for the simple reason that Garber doesn't just make business/market decisions - he makes important soccer ones too. Keep in mind, Garber has a lot more power than his commissioner-contemporaries do in the NFL, NBA, MLB because of MLS' status as a shared-entity league. In MLS, the league does everything from signing and allocating players to determining and distributing revenue. 15 years ago Garber - a marketing guy - made a decision that the league was going to spend money on aging European stars in order to increase the talent level and make the league more marketable. What if he had instead taken that pot of money and mandated the development of fully-funded youth development academies. Both are within his power to do, and both are plausible solutions to the problem of increasing talent and making the league more marketable. That's an example of a business decision that has incredible soccer-related ramifications in the United States. Garber deserves plenty of credit for soccer-specific stadiums, the development of local fan bases, the re-branding of specific teams, and the success of the expansion teams. But Paul's question about why there isn't a soccer guy in the room when all these important decisions are being made is spot on.

  15. Frank Cardone, December 22, 2014 at 8:52 p.m.

    Excellent article by PG. It is amazing that the top levels of MLS management include not one person with a true soccer background. The marketing types will sell a lot of shirts but overexpansion and its negative effect on the level of play could come back to haunt everyone. We, the true soccer fans will feel the pain. The marketing crowd will jump ship and find another "product" to sell. Lacrosse anyone? MLS needs a soccer mind in its top ranks. The sooner the better.

  16. Allan Lindh, December 24, 2014 at 1:54 a.m.

    So come up with a name, all you know it alls. The Joe Torre analogy is a great one, but Joe's a sweet guy, and while a great coach, Bruce Arena ain't sweet. Julie Foudy might be closed thing we have to someone with brains, who was a great player, and very well spoken. She might even take the job.

  17. Charles Fix, December 24, 2014 at 1:13 p.m.

    I don't think MLS is going down the path as much as you think.

    MLS has done a great job of reviewing video and post handing out. Which to me works the best.

    You know, as a player, that everything will be reviewed. Now how easily do you go down ?

    I realize that Paul needs a "soccer guy" in there ( he has only been doing this 15 years, hopefully he will be able to join our ranks any day now ), but I think MLS is doing it better than most the world...again.

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