MLS Commissioner Don Garber conducted his annual State of the League address Tuesday in New York, making unsolicited comments and fielding questions from a group of media members.
Garber introduced the MLS Best XI, as voted by club officials, players and media. Lacking outside backs and a defensive midfielder, the list is loaded with central defenders, playmakers and scorers.
Bill Hamid, D.C. United (USA)
Chad Marshall, Seattle Sounders (USA)
Bobby Boswell, D.C. United (USA)
Omar Gonzalez, Los Angeles Galaxy (USA)
Lee Nguyen, New England Revolution (USA)
Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers (Argentina)
Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy (USA)
Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls (France)
Robbie Keane, Los Angeles Galaxy (Ireland)
Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders (Nigeria)
Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls (England)
As you know from this Insider story, the league is in discussions with the players’ union concerning a new collective bargaining agreement. The current deal will expire Jan. 31, though a failure to reach a new pact before then is not expected to interrupt training camp. Essentially, the sides have until the league openers in early March to finalize an agreement.
“This process now is in the beginning phases. It’s talking about what our respective priorities are. There will likely be another meeting in December. And then we’ll get down to the negotiations in earnest, and I am confident we will be able to reach an agreement that is good for the league and good for the players. The dynamic is one that I would describe as positive. We have informed the players in a very transparent way that the league isn’t performing financially the way we would like. I think they accept that and understand that. At the same time, there are a wide variety of things important to them that we are going to have to listen to.”
The league resolved the 2010 issues just a few days before the season openers. Is a work stoppage possible?
“At this point, I don’t think we or they are thinking about a work stoppage. You never go into an agreement thinking, ‘Okay, we have this date. If that date doesn’t get hit, then all of a sudden, it’s armageddon.’ We do believe we are all in this together to try to grow the game.
“We need to recognize and react to what is important to [the players]. They need to understand how the league needs to operate. The training wheels are certainly off. We are no longer a toddler. We are getting into that college age, where we are still trying to figure it all out. Nobody has all the answers, but we recognize we are standing on our own two feet. It is very good for everybody, including our players, that the state of Major League Soccer is better today than it had been 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”
MLS will add two expansion clubs in 2015 — New York City FC and Orlando City — and beyond that …
“We will be at 24 teams before the end of the decade.”
MLS is committed to Los Angeles and Atlanta in 2017 and has listened to expansion pitches from Minneapolis, Sacramento and Las Vegas.
Garber said it’s conceivable MLS could decide within six months on what year to expand further. It would then have to identify what markets are in the running.
Miami’s bid, headed by David Beckham, was awarded provisional expansion status, but stadium issues could sink his plan.
“We love Miami,” Garber said. “There have been some pro sports struggles there, so people are questioning whether Miami can support an MLS team. I believe it can, but only if it has the right stadium. If we don’t have the right stadium, we’re not going to Miami, nor should we go to any market without the right stadium plan. Until we get [a stadium] finalized, we can’t make a commitment to go to Miami.”
So why did MLS approve NYCFC, which is playing at Yankee Stadium, and a second L.A. club without a firm stadium plan?
“We believe we have an LA stadium solution and are confident enough in our stadium opportunity that we believe we can solve that issue.”
At the time NYCFC was approved, “we were not just confident, we were at agreement level on a particular site. We thought we had that site in our hands; we lost it.”
“This is not an exact science. There are no things you can look at and say, ‘The decision you made today has to be the precedent for every decision going forward.’ We will have a stadium in New York City. They are committed to it. A temporary solution at Yankee Stadium is a good one. I think they have 20,000 season tickets sold. That’s more than most of our teams have.” [It’s actually 11,000.]
“We know in Miami, if we don’t play in an environment that will be the center of what is happening there culturally, we will not succeed. We can’t go into a situation where that is up in the air because of our failure in the past. We were in the wrong spot, we were in that market, and we failed and folded a team!”
Commenting on Brian Straus’ story that MLS is looking to expand the playoffs to 12 teams from 10, Garber acknowledged MLS is recommending such a change, starting next season.
The board of governors can approve the move at a regularly scheduled meeting Saturday in Los Angeles.
The thought behind the expanded field is, in anticipation of 24 members within a few years, “rather than constantly changing, change it now, keep that for as long as we have 24 teams and then, in essence, be at that percentage of playoff qualification that exists in the NBA and NHL, which is in and around 50 percent. Some of our fans don’t like that. No one can argue with me that our playoffs this year weren’t the most exciting game we had in MLS.”
Don’t expect a switch to a European-style, August-through-May schedule anytime soon.
“The weather issues we have are insurmountable until we start building domes and start heating stadiums. That is an unfortunate reality we have to manage.”
He cited cold conditions in much of the country now in early December and frigid temperatures and snow in January and February.
With acquisition mechanisms continuing to cause confusion and financial information shrouded in secrecy, “We recognize that things are not as easy for people to understand as they need to be,” Garber said.
He cited New England’s byzantine acquisition of Jermaine Jones after the World Cup. But “there was no other way to do it, based on the rules that we have. But most of the public doesn’t understand our rules and most of the media doesn’t as well.”
“Transparency is a big priority in 2015. And one of the things you will start seeing is that the concepts that we have in place that allow players to come into the league, that allow a priority order, will be shared with the public after we come up with a way to organize it in buckets so people can understand it. … You have a commitment from me that at least a heck of a lot more of it will be transparent than it is today.”
MLS is aiming to create “Decision Day” — all 10 matches on the final weekend of the regular season kicking off at the same time, similar to the Premier League’s last matchday. If time zones prevent such a schedule, the league will try to play all intra-conference matches at the same time.
MLS is also exploring flexible TV scheduling for late-season matches. In other words, the league wants its national TV partners to be able to select more meaningful games on short notice.
Will there ever be promotion and relegation?
“Ever is a long time so I don’t know what will happen when they kick me out of here. It’s not happening anytime soon.”
The league wants to sign Mexican forward Erick “Cubo” Torres, who was left without a club after Chivas USA was shuttered this fall.
“Cubo has been a great player in our league and certainly deserves to be in a position where he can thrive in a new team setting. We extracted him from the process that was used for the other players from Chivas USA [with a dispersal draft]. We would love to have him continue with the league.”
With three Canadian clubs in MLS, Garber emphasized the importance of the league improving Canada’s national program.
“I don’t think our job will be done until Canada qualifies for the World Cup. And when I leave this job, if we haven’t achieved that, it will be a mark that I will truly regret.”
The league is planning a special event honoring the retiring Landon Donovan at the MLS draft Jan. 15 in Philadelphia.