Running a pro soccer league demands long hours and hard work from the man at the top, and during a media conference call with reporters Thursday, MLS commissioner Don Garber touched on many aspects of that job as well as the league’s past, present and future.
Garber took the post in 1999, the same year as the first MLS soccer-specific stadium opened in Columbus, which is also the site of this year’s championship game. During the week he cited with pride the league’s balance and parity by which two smaller-market teams, Columbus and Portland, had survived the postseason gauntlet to reach the MLS Cup final, and he referenced the finalists again when quizzed about the league’s single-entity structure, by which it – not individual clubs – own player contracts.
“Since inception, our owners have been very supportive of the ownership structure,” said Garber. “Single-entity has been the foundation of the growth of where we are. It will be the foundation of where we're going.
“Every fan should believe that their team can win the MLS Cup. It is not a league of haves and have nots. That is something that is empowering to fans and everyone around the league should feel good about it.”
The conference call lasted nearly an hour and during it Garber touched on the league’s relationship with U.S. Soccer, Concacaf and FIFA, its plans for the Copa America Centenario to be staged in the United States next summer, expansion plans, player development, and a few other topics.
EXPANSION. Though the league has slowed its growth in one sense by delaying further expansion beyond 24 teams for a few years, the next round of additions is a hot issue as David Beckham’s efforts in Miami drag on. On paper, the next four slots are allotted to Atlanta in 2017, a second team in Los Angeles, St. Paul (Minn.) and Miami, but the steady progress on a stadium by the owners of Sacramento Republic FC prompted several questions as to whether a swap could be made if Miami’s troubles continue.
“We have made commitments to David, and we have a true belief in that city as representing an important strategic market for us and that hasn’t changed,” reiterated Garber. “That being said, if they can’t finalize their deal for a stadium, they’re not going to have an MLS team. If we reach that point -- which I think we will have to figure out soon and I don’t have the date for that -- then it’s conceivable that Sacramento could be higher on our expansion priority list.
“That was a very long way of saying, it’s hard for me to talk about Sacramento replacing Miami until we’ve finalized where we are in Miami. We will make the decision on Miami in due time.”
Finding a solution in Miami would fit the league’s needs in several regards: it would provide a natural rival for Orlando City SC; add the nation's 16th-largest media market to its national TV footprint; and increase the league’s Hispanic influence. The Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto market is just four rungs lower at 20, but doesn’t have quite the same lifestyle and international allure.
Garber acknowledged that the Earthquakes hold territorial rights to Northern California but emphasized that the league’s own plans, and not any resistance by the Quakes, are the factor that could push Sacramento out of the running in the short term. MLS wants to be in Miami and only recently has Sacramento emerged as a viable expansion city.
“Let’s just say we have been focused on having a team in Miami almost since we left over 10 years ago,” said Garber of the league’s decision to do away with the Miami Fusion at the end of 2001. “Over the last decade, as we’ve monitored the developments in that city, and we’re working off of a plan that had us expanding into strategic regions, Miami continued to represent a city of importance for us. We then had finalized our agreement with David Beckham on the city that he chose for his option.
“That decision was made almost three years ago, and it has been that long that we’ve been working with him and the city to see if we could finalize Miami as an expansion team.”
On the other hand, Sacramento wasn’t even on the radar screen when San Jose returned to the league in 2008, two years after AEG moved the Quakes to Houston. The league granted territorial rights to the Quakes ownership group at its request so the team could “take root,” in the words of a league official, and as Garber noted it wasn’t until the eighth year of operation that the reborn Quakes moved into Avaya Stadium. With 15 of 20 MLS teams playing in their own facilities and more to be added in the next few years, Miami's struggles threaten to doom its bid if the impasse persists and Sacramento's progress continues.
“Sacramento had not been on the priority list,” Garber said. “It was never part of any plan when we launched the league or when we went back to San Jose. Then, we started seeing what’s been happening with the Republic and their great ownership group and we had to take a step back and say, ‘Man, this is really special,' but we need to do it in a systematic way. We need to work together to find a way to work them into the league.”
MORE MONEY. Garber cited a few figures regarding what the league is spending on player salaries, specifically those of Designated Player, and pointed out methods by which the league hopes to strengthen the “core group” of players that fill the large gap between DPs and young prospects.
He said spending on salaries has quintupled since the 2007 season and the $120 million spent on DPs this year is six times the expenditure of five years ago. Nonetheless, managed growth is the league’s objective.
“We have been going about building quality systematically and I think that systematic, strategic approach has allowed us to be in the position that we’re in today, which is careful and controlled growth,” Garber said. “It started in 2007 with the need to bring in a bigger name, more experienced international players that that led to the Designated Player rule.
“Then, at the bottom of the roster, and this has a lot to do with our relationship with the Canadian Soccer Association and U.S. Soccer, we needed to invest in youth development through a mandate with our academy program, but also doing it with trying to show value with having a Homegrown Player rule for example.
“Where we are now is focusing on the core of our rosters, the middle of our rosters, positions four through seven of five through eight, and that’s what the TAM [Targeted Allocation Money] program is all about. Ultimately, as our revenues grow, we can ensure that our resources are effectively applied to all three of those segments.”
Garber admitted that MLS teams need to be more competitive with their Mexican counterparts in signing players as well as competitions such as the Concacaf Champions League, but those goals can’t be met by expanding rostersn beyond the current limit of 28 (two more slots can be filled by minimum-salary players at the team’s discretion). He said the league is focused on methods by which teams can get better players while adhering to current roster limits and salary restrictions.
FUTURE DIRECTION OF USL. As of next year, more than one-half of the 20 MLS teams will be operating USL teams and several others have affiliations with independent clubs. Garber addressed the issue of expanding this dynamic to include all teams eventually. One of the MLS-operated teams, Galaxy II, reached the USL championship game this year.
“It’s a goal of the league and a very focused one to have every team either own or partner with a USL team,” Garber said. “By next year, 11 MLS clubs will own and operate a USL team to help grow the sport at all levels.
“The relationship is a strong one, and I really do believe, and I know many fans question this, in the soccer pyramid and I believe that there is a place for secondary leagues to help grow the sport at all levels. We’re trying to create a nation in these two countries for professional soccer fans and followers, as opposed to just fans and followers of national teams and foreign clubs.”
One possible roadblock is a recent announcement by U.S. Soccer that USL teams run by MLS clubs will be excluded from the U.S. Open Cup, the national knockout tournament that is available to all amateur and professional teams registered with the federation.
COPA AMERICA CENTENTARIO. Garber said the league is considering a two-week break during the Copa America Cententario, which will played in 12 U.S. cities next year.
The tournament lasts much longer than two weeks, from June 3-26, so apparently the plan is for MLS to sit out the group phase that will involve all 16 teams -- the 10 Conmebol nations and six representatives from Concacaf. The issue will be discussed by the Board of Governors during their meetings in Columbus this week.
“We’ll talk to our board about that this weekend and the league is supportive of taking that break,” said Garber.
ROLE IN RESHAPING THE GLOBAL GAME. In the wake of more soccer officials being arrested Thursday morning in Zurich, Garber revealed that he is engaged in discussions with leaders of some of the world’s top leagues to help the game go forward.
Richard Scudamore (executive chairman of the Premier League) and Christian Siefert (CEO of the German Bundesliga) are two of the executives Garber is talking with. His idea is to form a committee that would fight corruption and repair some of the damage caused by FIFA’s shady methods of awarding World Cup and bribes that have triggered arrests and indictments of soccer officials.
“We don’t get a chance to talk about these kinds of things publicly,” Garber said, “but I think, for me, the arrests in Zurich this morning demonstrate, once again, that there are two worlds of soccer. It’s the game that’s played on the field and it’s the scandals that exist with the governance of this sport at many levels.
“As we think, ‘How does this affect us going into the weekend?,' we’ll celebrate the best of our league and the best of our sport at our Cup and nothing is going to diminish our excitement with our 20th MLS Cup and the celebration of where we've been for the last 20 years."