State of the League: Don Garber says investment model is 'unsustainable' unless MLS becomes 'selling league'

Commissioner Don Garber underscored the rapidly changing nature of Major League Soccer when he said in Friday's State of the League address in Atlanta that the league's model of selective spending on imports using the Designated Player and Target Allocation Money mechanisms and heavy investment in academies and training facilities are "unsustainable" if clubs don't get a return on their investment and the league doesn't become a "selling league."

That included Garber's assertion that the league's position on solidarity payments has changed  -- unthinkable just a few years ago.

Garber's comments come amid a new wave of MLS academy stars fleeing to Europe after they turn 18 when they are free to sign with European clubs for nothing. It comes as clubs are increasing spending not only for facilities but educational programs for young players, making them ready earlier for pro careers, like their young counterparts in other major soccer nations. But the better the the players they are producing, the more European clubs are coming to chase after them.

A Soccer America survey of U.S. teenagers leaving MLS clubs in 2018 shows 17 players moved to Europe and only Red Bulls star Tyler Adams moved for a transfer fee. Chris Richards is on loan from FC Dallas to Bayern Munich and may be sold in January. The list doesn't include St. Louis-bred Josh Sargent, who scored in his Bundesliga debut on Friday and whose territorial rights were held by Sporting KC.

"This is a big issue for our league," said Garber. "While I don't know that it's entirely about young players chasing their dreams as much as it's international clubs chasing our young players. That's something that we've got to wrap our collective minds around and figure out how do we manage that in a way that justifies our owners investing this year north of $100 million outside of our first-team rosters. "We are not, as a country, participants in solidarity and training competition. I think that probably has to change. We have to find a way that if that's going to happen, how do we at least get compensated for it. I don't know how we can justify making the kind of investments we've been making."

Garber acknowledged that the issue is legally complicated and FIFA may change its rules.

"I will say our view about this whole area is very, very different than it was two, three, four or five years ago," he added. "I think the product that we're developing has become some of the most important assets that we need to start figuring out ways that we're either protecting or we're finding ways to get compensated for if we can't protect them or sign them."

As a new league, MLS has always struggled developing and keeping stars. And as a soccer league, it differs from other American sports leagues that keep the stars they've produced for their entire careers.

"We need to become more of a selling league," Garber added. "Some of you I have long, close relationships with. As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I've always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train. We all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. I reviewed a whole list of them over the last couple of days. Those countries, they don't need to worry about building a league, the league is already built."

Garber says it's a careful balance.

"How do you retain your stars, create consistency, which is consistent with the major leagues here in our country, even though they get traded to different cities, but still on their broadcast partners and a part of the narrative, where we have a different dynamic?" he said. "We're part of the global game, part of the beautiful game. We have been buying for so long, and as we've gone through the analysis, it's hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development. We've got to have something that turns this model around or else it's going to be unsustainable."

12 comments about "State of the League: Don Garber says investment model is 'unsustainable' unless MLS becomes 'selling league'".
  1. Wooden Ships, December 8, 2018 at 8:03 a.m.

    Legally complicated, why is that? Either compensation or the teams do away with academies. Pay to play as we know it here hasn’t produced at the level anywhere close to a decent return on individual/family investment. 

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, December 8, 2018 at 2:18 p.m.

    The laws on minors working and contracts are complicated because state and local laws apply. The players move through a lot of different jurisdictions. There is typically no restrictions on hours that amatuers put in, but especially under age 14, work hours are greatly restricted. Players are usually better off not turning pro until age 16 because of the work restrictions. 

    Should pay-to-play clubs be compensated for providing training and travel expenses paid for by parents? I don't think it is equitable.

    The law is complicated.

    Negotiation strategy is pretty cut and dried. Everyone knows about the ban on international transfers before age 18, and everyone knows that a player out of contract moves on a free transfer.  

  3. frank schoon, December 8, 2018 at 11:51 a.m.

    This is nothing. Here is a country with over 300 million, an economic giant, crying crocodile tears for they are losing players. How do you think Holland copes, a little country of 16 million people who can't compete with the big salaries, money, of much bigger countries like Germany, Spain, England, Italy, France. Ajax learned a long, long, time ago that they have to produce , and develop good players in order to compete and we do a good damn job of it...Thank You, Ajax, who currently are in the process of selling Frenkie de Jong for 75 million to PSG and De Ligt will be going next to Barcelona, both are young players 21 and 19 respectively.That money will pay for player development and more for Ajax. And van der Beek another young Ajax talent is also wanted by other major countries but elected to stay at Ajax because he feels he's not ready as of yet and needs to learn more.
    The US don't produce or develop good players ,that's where our problems lies, because our Developmental Academy stinks, our player development has stunk for 50years. This is why young players leave and go play and LEARN (better)  being in Europe. 
    Players like De Jong and De Ligt didn't want to leave Ajax until they felt they have learned enough. But American players don't respect their own soccer environment and developmental program and jump at the first chance to split town and go to Europe to learn more and better.
     The American players have no guarantee of success when going to Europe due to lack of good development training in the US and rely more upon their own talent. This is why young Ajax talent choose to remain at Ajax because they receive excellent training unlike at the MLS and then decide to make that step.
     We have no PICKUP culture and we have lousy player development, that's where our problem lies.
     You look at all the French stars and they talk about their Pickup soccer experience and how that formed them as a player. 
    We'll continue buying players until the USSF opens its eyes and begins initiate an effort to foster and nurture a PICKUP has to be done for you can't depend upon the Developmental Academies, run by a bunch licensed stiffs from the USSF coaching academy, unlike at Ajax where the players learn from retired "great' or good players.
    We need to bring over retired "greats' to help our player development, for it will go much faster.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, December 8, 2018 at 2:22 p.m.

    You look at the backgrounds of professional athletes in the US and pickup play is typical here in the US too.

    I like to say that travel soccer is self-selecting. The players that play more are typically better.

  5. frank schoon replied, December 8, 2018 at 4:10 p.m.

    Bob,I do think basketball represents , to me at least, where you see the true pickup all of the time

  6. R2 Dad, December 8, 2018 at 3:31 p.m.

    Nothing's changed--Garber is just now getting a clue. This  "rapidly changing nature" is just cover for the fact that he's been a dolt with the whole "league of choice" nonsense he's been spouting for years. 

    Of course, Garber's hand is being forced because of money. For him it's always about the money--nothing else. This is what happens when you believe the soccer universe ends at the nation's borders. Enjoy the karma, Teflon Don.

  7. Kris Spyrka, December 9, 2018 at 11:14 p.m.

    Frank Schoon you are spot on.  Young players leaving to Europe have to be retooled, redeveloped.  They are going over, more or less, as raw talent (raw material).  Many of them go over with a US Agent and are left to navigate (sink or swim) with their new European club on their own.  Very few will get the hand holding Pulisic got, since his dad was there coaching in Dortmund's academy, while Christian got established.  Frankly, I wouldn't pay to get them over (free transfer at best), it's a risk they'll be any good.  And frankly, the top tier still shops worldwide.  The new model will be European clubs that will train the trainers to get better development at the lower U's.  This is in play in China and Afrika, and on a limited basis here already.  That is, we look like a developing nation to them with raw talent, not a serious football country with a robust or reliable development system in place.

  8. Ben Myers, December 10, 2018 at 12:38 p.m.

    There remain serious and fundamental issues with the development of soccer players in this country right down to the grassroots.  I like Kris Spyrka's "retooled, redeveloped".  At the grassroots level, I have to retool young kids who have received clueless coaching.  I am a heretic saying this, but the model for player development should be, needs to be, must be based on best practices.  Are MLS players developed according to best practices?  Well, only the foreign imports.  So where are best pratices followed?  Well, watch teams in the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Champions League and the World Cup to see how the best players really play.  Then ask why they do what they do.  This is not rocket science to figure out.  Then train the young kids to do what the best players in the world do, but with a lower expectation of success, obviously, because the kids are beginners.  Follow this recipe of player development and no retooling is necessary.  I spoke to a grassroots group about this last night, using an outline of about twenty points I needed to make to the group.  Time to turn this into a position paper on grassroots player development in these United States, written by an American soccer heretic.  Me.   If we start at the grassroots with best practices, American soccer might finally make progress in a few years.

  9. frank schoon replied, December 10, 2018 at 2:22 p.m.

    Ben, Good stuff. But I do want to state that player development, is not  done following  a cookie cutter fashion, especially when you're dealing with kids. The most important thing with kids is playing, getting touches on the ball, a la Pickup soccer. In other words, if put Cruyff, Maradona, Pele, other greats together, they all have one thing in common is playing ,playing, playing, and I don't mean 11v11, but pickup when they were young. It is not that each worked on specific aspects like , volley shots, cone dribbling, no, it is just playing. Now as you get older you begin to practice certain technical aspects of the game like crosses on the run ,stationary, heading, etc...Like Pele states  ,first learn all the basics because over 90 % what you do in a game is just simple routine. It is only what is beyond 90% that players like Maradona ,Pele,and Cruyff use.
    A basic technical exercise is running full speed at a ball coming at you and controlling it on the run. It is basic but very difficult and therefore it is practiced when your older, or dribbling or shooting with the weak foot, or trapping a ball from a long high kick from the goalie...Again it is very basic but how many can do it ....What I just mentioned are aspects that have to be worked on seperately which are not often applied in a pickup game and some of these aspects, as you get older might not be necessary to learn depending on the position you play , for example there is lot of difference technically required between that of fullback and a striker. As you get older the additional techniques have more of a singular or isolated aspect that requires extra time to learn. But most importantly  it is all about playing , pickup for there is everything to be learned that you need to play individually and as a team player, THAT IS THE FOUNDATION
    The Developmental Academies , totally overlook this aspect. Ask yourself how many players come out of these Academies able to use both feet....You don't need developmental academies but lots of pickup soccer and then club ball can teach you the rest of specialized techniques that you need to  work on individually. Who needs Academies ,we just need a program for clubs to follow in their own way in teaching those extras.
    I would like to see a soccer camps in the summer that specializes for example  on just passing with  outside, instep, inside,etc and shooting, volley shot, all kinds of shooting and then play in the evening games. Specialized camps emphasizing particular techniques during would be nice

  10. humble 1, December 10, 2018 at 2:34 p.m.

    three years ago academies were not loosing big name prospects, because they were not producing them.  When my son starting playing soccer in 2010 there were two schools in Texas playing D1 mens soccer.  Now there are four.  There was little organized play for players in College.  Today there is PDL.  There were almost zero D2 clubs with academies - now you have the entire USL in D2 many with academies.  The Rio Grande Valley of Texas 4 years ago had zero USL, no DA and no D1 Mens college soccer.  Today they have all three.  Four years ago colleges got all their top recruits, today, most do not.  Today colleges to offer the one-year play and 4 year pay plan - look at the Timbers Ebobisse, he took Dukes 1 for 4 play, signed an MLS contract the next year, played in the USL a year, then the last two years at Portland and he almost scored a spectacular header, at 21 years old in the MLS final Sunday.  MLS drives everything.  Before, they were loosing very little.  Today, a lot, so they scream for an will finally get the change.  It is not that legally complicated as it was MLS that was taking the recomp payments and not sharing them with clubs and USSF was backing them.  What little club has enough in their treasure chest to take on those two forces? 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, December 10, 2018 at 3:40 p.m.

    The problem is that in the US the pay-to-play clubs do not fund player development. The parents do. MLS has a way to share income equitably within MLS, but what other youth clubs in the country fund elite training for players over age 12? 

    "Scholarships" don't count because the other parents are paying for training the "scholarship" players.

    For the pay-to-play clubs, solidarity payments represent a potential windfall profit which equitably they should not keep.

    On top of that payments are only made to USSF affiliated clubs. That means Hispanic and other unaffiliated clubs would get nothing no matter how much they contributed to development of a professional player.

    All this attention to how soccer is structured in Europe is misguided. All of FIFAs rules are designed for the benefit of Europe. For instance the ban on international transfers of minors doesn't apply to international transfers between European countries. Promotion and relegation is also unsuitable for the US because leagues are still expanding here. US leagues are not as stable and mature as in Europe.

  12. R2 Dad replied, December 11, 2018 at 1:45 p.m.

    Bob, what about DA clubs not affiliated with MLS? Or does that not count as development? In general your comments make sense, but at the end of the day should FIFA be compensating knowledgable small clubs (rewarding performing untities for development), or just giving it all to administators from USSF and MLS and hoping for the best? And how has that worked out for the Nats? You can be making your same arguments about MLS once they hit 48 clubs, or 96 clubs. To be believed, you/Garber/Carlos need to draw a line in the sand beyond which you no longer get a hall pass on pro/rel, training comp. et al. Otherwise, you're just hypothesizing.

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