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.”