Garber responds to Blatter’s criticism

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday responded to FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, whom last week said the U.S. pro league was “struggling.”

 In a phone interview with the Insider, Garber said: “I really don’t believe the president believes we are struggling. I don’t think anybody in the pro sports community would describe us that way. In no way are we struggling, but we are less than 20 years old; we haven’t gone through a full generational term.”

Blatter, president of soccer’s world governing body since 1998, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Middle East TV network: “We had the World Cup [in the United States] in 1994. But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years — it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.”

MLS, featuring 16 clubs in the United States and three in Canada, launched in 1996.

“There is no very strong professional league,” Blatter said. “They have just the MLS, but they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

MLS continues to post weak national TV ratings and has failed to send a team to the FIFA Club World Cup. However, the league has grown to 19 teams from 10 since 2004 and this past season boasted the highest regular season attendance average in its history (18,807), putting it on par with the NBA and NHL.

“The other major [U.S. sports] leagues are so deeply embedded in the culture and have been for generations,” Garber said. “MLS, in a short period of time, has made great progress. But we have not been around for 100 years like [some] other [U.S.] leagues and certainly like the European soccer leagues, and as such, our development is appropriate to where we are from an age perspective.”

He elaborated on the American sports landscape, saying, “This is a very competitive sports market, and even within it, MLS is competing for broadcast and sponsorship agreements and municipal stadium funding packages. We have been able to make progress in all of those areas, and you can’t fake that. We don’t, in any way, believe we are ready to stand toe to toe with the Premier League, but the Premier League has been around far longer.”

Garber said he was “surprised” by Blatter’s comments.

“We have always had a very good relationship with FIFA and President Blatter. In many ways, he looks to some of the developments in the United States with pride because if not for the 1994 World Cup, soccer in America wouldn’t be what it is today.”

[Blatter’s comments about MLS can be heard in the last three minutes of this video.]

In an interview with Fox Soccer in late 2011, Blatter continued to push for MLS to conform to the international club calendar (August through May). The league has always played from early spring to late fall, in large part because of cold-weather concerns in many MLS cities. (Some leagues in northern Europe also utilize a spring-to-fall schedule.)

Blatter, however, suggested MLS plays through the summer to avoid stadium conflicts with the NFL. It was a problem in the league’s early years — with college football as well — but now only the Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution are secondary tenants in football stadiums.

Almost every MLS club plays in a new or renovated stadium designed for soccer.

Asked about eventually shifting the schedule, Garber conceded: “In order [to become one of the top soccer leagues in the world], we have to measure up against all the other leagues and more than likely have a similar calendar.”

Blatter also told Fox that MLS’s efforts to gain further popularity is hurt by the fact that most U.S. national team regulars compete in foreign leagues.

“This is not good for American sports,” he said. “Because the American sport, they want to have their heroes at home. And therefore, this is, I would say, this is very instrumental.”

Garber responded by saying: “There are many leagues around the world where some of the best players are not playing in the domestic league and yet the league is doing just fine. I do hope at some point we are able to support financially having all of the top Americans in our league. I believe that time will come. I don’t believe that time is right now.”

Moving forward, Garber said: “We look forward to having FIFA’s support as we continue to develop the game, and I am sure we can continue to count on that.”

On the topic of other emerging soccer nations, Blatter seemed oddly optimistic about China’s soccer future. China plays “ping-pong and football, this is what they do.”

China won 88 medals at the Olympics in London last summer. None were in soccer (neither the men nor women qualified) and six were in table tennis. The Chinese men’s national team has qualified for the World Cup once (1998). The women’s squad, an international power in the 1990s, has fallen to No. 17 in the FIFA world rankings, fifth in the Asian confederation.

While China has a massive soccer audience, the infrastructure has been plagued by problems and the national league has struggled in make in-roads.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.

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Steven Goff · January 2, 2013