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All signs point upwards for MLS

HOUSTON -- A sellout crowd of some 70,000 is expected for the MLS All-Stars vs. Manchester United here at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión). It's only an exhibition game, of course, but it's also a chance to generate some buzz for soccer after the World Cup for MLS and for United -- which may send out Mexican star Javier (Chicharito) Hernández for his first action with the club.

Whether we'll see MLS All-Star Landon Donovan is another story. Donovan played 90 minutes on Tuesday night in Los Angeles's stunning 4-1 loss at home to second-division Puerto Rico in the CONCACAF Champions League. The loss left L.A. on the brink of elimination before the return leg and put the league's recent friendlies against European clubs into perspective. Simply put, it's hard for MLS to crow about growth when the team with the league's best record is losing games that matter in such a manner to Puerto Rico.

That said, there are several positive signs these days for MLS. New acquisition Thierry Henry will make his league debut for New York on Saturday in Houston, and all signs are pointing to the Red Bulls acquiring Mexican captain Rafael Márquez from Barcelona in the next week. Seattle and Chicago may also be signing new designated players in the coming days, and you get a sense from talking to MLS people here that they feel like the league is entering a new phase right now with increased star power and a little bit of momentum.

Nine cures for World Cup withdrawal

On Tuesday I sat down with MLS commissioner Don Garber for a conversation that touched on a number of subjects, including: Márquez to New York, MLS' willingness to adopt technology to help officiating, Donovan's future, a second MLS team in New York City and potential new TV deals for the league. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

SI.com: Now that the World Cup is over, MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that is in-season right now. Do you feel like the league has put itself in a position to demand the attention of Americans who got into soccer during the World Cup?

Garber: We're certainly putting ourselves in the position to ask for their attention. I don't believe we're positioned yet to demand anything from our fans. Our pitch to the World Cup viewer is give us 90 minutes and we'll give you the game that you fell in love with at the World Cup. We'll show you that our stadiums are world-class, our supporters groups are growing and the quality of play is pretty darn good, better than most people think. That's not just me talking, that's Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry talking.

SI.com: More designated players are being signed now by MLS teams: Henry in New York, Nery Castillo in Chicago and others. Do you feel like the league has done enough to create more incentives to sign DPs?

Garber: I think you'll continue to see [the designated player] rule evolve as we try to in this case capitalize on the interest of the World Cup fan, but probably more importantly the quality of the play on our fields. That's an important goal of ours. We'll continue to look at new ways to incentivize our clubs in a balanced way, including at our board meeting [Wednesday].

SI.com: What's the latest on Rafael Márquez potentially joining the New York Red Bulls?

Garber: The Red Bulls have been deep in discussions with Rafa. I think he'd be a fantastic signing for us. There's a great story with designated players and how the signings have evolved over the years. If we're able to finalize a deal with Márquez I think it would be one of the great signings in the history of our league. We should know something within the next week. I'm very hopeful the Red Bulls will be able to finalize a deal.

SI.com: Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts recently came out and implied that Ronaldinho might be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy. What are the chances of Ronaldinho joining the Galaxy this season?

Garber: I don't believe that's something that's going to happen this year. That being said, the fact that our owners are interested in bringing a player like Ronaldinho to the league speaks to a bit more aggressiveness as it relates to player signings. I think that's good for our fans, and I think it's a good approach to try to capture some of the interest of those 24 million people [in America] who watched the World Cup final.

SI.com:Raúl is leaving Real Madrid and is joining Schalke in Germany. Why not MLS?

Garber: I think a number of our teams have had discussions with Raúl. Like everything else, sometimes deals make sense for the player and the club, and sometimes they don't. I think Raúl is a fantastic player who would excite our fans and be a good MLS signing, but whatever discussions took place are no longer ongoing.

SI.com: Is there any chance of U.S. national team players who are out of contract like Jay DeMerit or DaMarcus Beasley coming to MLS?

Garber: Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. It's always been our goal, but we're becoming more public in stating our long-term vision. Had we talked about what we wanted to be when the league was founded, particularly when we had the challenges that we did, it would have raised some skepticism. But now that the league is growing, earning more respect and having more players coming into the league from the domestic and international ranks, we have a goal in sight. We'll know we've achieved that goal when the majority of the best American players are here and we have a great number of world-class players that are here both in their prime but also in the latter part of their careers.

That may or may not fit with that question, but it's important that we're coming out now to start saying it. I don't quite get the intrigue with "Americans Abroad." I don't understand why people are so infatuated with the fact there are American players playing overseas. If they were playing at the highest level, similar to what's happening with Mexicans playing for Arsenal and Manchester United, when we get to that point I think it would be great for everything that we need to achieve with American soccer. We need a player playing at the highest level and being a star internationally. Until that happens, for me as the commissioner it hurts when a player leaves Major League Soccer and goes to play in another league. And while most people would disagree with this statement, I'm not even convinced it's better for their development.

SI.com: Really? Why?

Garber: There's no doubt they make more money, but there's still a question as to whether or not a player who is not playing full-time on a team in Scandinavia is going to develop his game better than he could develop it in MLS. I think it should be a priority for us to get some of the star Americans who are playing overseas to come back and play in MLS, the same as we did in 1996. At some point our clubs will start looking at that. I don't believe it will happen while there's still a fairly large disparity between what we can pay those players and what they're able to earn overseas. But we clearly need to get to the point where that decision is less about money and more about what they believe is best for their career and their own development.

SI.com: You recently indicated that Landon Donovan is not for sale. There has to be a a transfer offer that you couldn't refuse from a team if it really wanted Donovan, right?

Garber: Let me be very clear: Landon Donovan is perhaps the most important American player in the history of the game, and never has he been more important now that he has become a real breakthrough personality. Ultimately the decision as to whether Landon plays for the Galaxy or asks to be transferred is a decision between Landon, his family and the Galaxy. It's not a decision made by the commissioner of the league. But I will say emphatically that I hope Landon stays in MLS and continues to help us grow this league.

SI.com: Have you received any offers for Donovan recently?

Garber: There has not been an offer made for Landon Donovan since the World Cup.

SI.com: Which city will get a soccer stadium first: San Jose, D.C., New England or Seattle?

Garber: I don't believe Seattle is in the market for a soccer stadium. You can't ask for a better situation than the one we have at Qwest Field. It's a terrific partnership between the Seahawks and the Sounders. Clearly we're trying hard to get stadiums built in San Jose, D.C. and New England, and the owners have their own timetables to do so. I can't handicap which one will get there first, but we've been pretty successful over the last dozen or so years getting stadiums built, and I'm confident we will in time be successful in all those markets.

SI.com: MLS has made some solid choices recently with expansion: Seattle, Toronto, Philadelphia, with Portland and Vancouver coming in next year and Montreal as the 19th team in 2012. What comes after that?

Garber: If we could write the book, the next chapter would be a second team in New York. We're working hard to achieve that. We've been spending time talking to potential investors, doing a lot of planning to figure out how to make the economics work. The Red Bulls have been very supportive of having a hometown rival. I hope our 20th team is in New York City. We've got a lot of work to do to achieve that.

SI.com: Would it be in Brooklyn, Queens or somewhere else?

Garber: We're looking at a number of different sites, sites in Queens for the most part, and not just at Shea but Long Island City and Flushing Meadow Park. So we have three particular sites we're looking at. But we have a lot of work to do to get something done. It's a very difficult market, very crowded.

SI.com: What year would you be hoping to start that team?

Garber: It certainly wouldn't be any earlier than 2013, and we're racing up against a deadline to get it done by '13. In order to get it done by 2013 we've got to get something done in the next 12 months.

SI.com: Where do Atlanta and Florida and the Southeast fit in for expansion then?

Garber: Beyond New York, Atlanta is still very engaged and started a committee to support the sport at a wide variety of levels. San Diego has just entered the mix. The man who bought the Silverdome in Detroit has been in discussions with us. I get probably 10 to 20 e-mails a day from fans in Miami trying to have us pay attention to their interest. I believe strongly that we need to be south of Washington D.C. in order for us truly to be a national league. But like everything with us, we're not going to do it just to round out the map. We'll do it when we have the right owner, the right stadium, when we have a sense the fans will support it and it will be a success like our other recent expansion teams.

SI.com: How long would MLS want to stay at 20 teams?

Garber: I don't know the answer to that. We'll tackle that when we finalize the 20th team.

SI.com: The MLS television contract with Fox Soccer Channel runs out at the end of this season. What are the chances of it being renewed, and is a channel like Versus an option?

Garber: I have great respect for the Fox Soccer Channel. It has been one of the drivers of the growth of the sport in this country. David Hill, who is the man responsible for Fox Sports, has just taken responsibility for the network. He's hired a guy named David Nathanson, who's a very seasoned cable executive, to run Fox Soccer Channel. I'm confident we'll be able to sit down together and hopefully finalize a new deal that will get us hopefully more programming, a better schedule, more promotion and without a doubt we hope more money. They're here in Houston. We'll talk to them this week. I've told them we'll continue to meet with Versus. That doesn't necessarily mean it is to the exclusion of FSC, but to be responsible to our owners we need to continue to go out and investigate other programming partnerships. I have tremendous respect for what [Versus] has done for the NHL and believe their interest in soccer, which continues to grow, is a good thing for the sport overall, whether that's for MLS or some of our other SUM properties.

SI.com: What's the status of MLS's other TV contracts?

Garber: ESPN and Univisión are through 2014.

SI.com: You've told me in the past that soccer should have some sort of improved technology to help with officiating. In the wake of the officiating controversies at the World Cup, would you lobby FIFA to let MLS be a testing ground for goal-line technology, instant replay or additional officials on the field?

Garber: Years ago when FIFA would test certain rule changes they would reach out to second- and third-tier leagues and then call us at the same time. We didn't believe we were in the same category as some of these leagues, and it didn't make sense for us to be participating in those programs. Today I would be very interested in working with FIFA in any way they felt necessary to test either technology or any other changes they would be interested in looking at as it relates to officiating. I think our fans are more conditioned to officiating innovation because of the things that happen other major leagues here. They're asking for it, and I believe it would be a positive for us to test out some options.

We're certainly not lobbying FIFA at this point, but I've let [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati know that if there's anything that the federation, as the manager of our officials, is interested in doing, we're open. That goes from technology to extra officials to anything else. I do believe that officiating needs to get better, and I think American fans are conditioned to having the right result happen on the field. The concept of the intrigue and controversy around officiating doesn't quite resonate with the American fan as it might with others around the world.

SI.com: CONCACAF Champions League games begin this week. No MLS team has won that trophy since 2000, and to this day no MLS team has ever won a competitive game in Mexico. How important is it to MLS for those things to change?

Garber: Incredibly important. One of the challenges with the Champions League is that in March our guys have to go play at altitude in Mexico when we're in our preseason. I believe it's very important that's we're competitive against Mexico. We need to prove our value and worthiness against our regional rival, and winning the Champions League would be a great way to do that. It's one thing to win an exhibition against a European club that's coming over here in their preseason, and that's of great promotional value and it's fun and exciting. But we need to win the Champions League.

SI.com: Does David Beckham move the needle in MLS anymore?

Garber: Absolutely. I will say this for the rest of time: This league isn't what it is today without David Beckham. And I believe he'll continue to be able to move the needle when he comes back, hopefully sometime later this year and if not, next year.

SI.com: Regarding TV ratings, are you concerned there hasn't been a post-World Cup bump for MLS?

Garber: You know, there has been a post-World Cup bump. That bump hasn't really moved the overall average. It's only one game against 20. But the first game back, the highest rating we had of the year was the Galaxy game with Landon [against Seattle], and then we had the exhibition with San Jose and Tottenham, which was the highest rating we'd had of the entire year. I will be the first to say that you'd love to see immediate gratification right after the World Cup, but we've been at this long enough to know the water level rises slowly. It's not a tidal wave. As long as we continue to grow all our measures over time, we'll be pleased at our development. Certainly the World Cup helps, but it's not a silver bullet. I don't believe there are any silver bullets.

This is the official debut Planet Fútbol, my new soccer column that will appear every Wednesday on SI.com (set your calendars!), and each week I'll put out my quick-take thoughts on the soccer world. Let's dive in:

1. Look for Bob Bradley to be coaching the U.S. against Brazil on Aug. 10. A U.S. Soccer source tells me that Bradley will definitely coach the U.S. in the high-profile friendly in New Jersey (as long as he doesn't leave of his own accord to take a club job elsewhere). Bradley has now met with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and general secretary Dan Flynn in ongoing discussions about his future with the national team. Considering that most European teams have started their preseasons, the most likely potential club destination for Bradley appears to be Fulham, but Bradley does not appear to be the top candidate for the Fulham job. Other possibilities could be in Scandinavia or MLS. (Vancouver has yet to hire a coach yet, and some MLS teams might be quicker to let their coaches go if they could get Bradley.) Bradley's contract with U.S. Soccer runs through the end of the 2010 calendar year.

2. A couple of people in U.S. Soccer have told me that the U.S. is planning to bring its best team for the Brazil friendly. A roster is expected to be announced next week. It is a FIFA international date, after all, it's Brazil, and the hope is that the U.S. players' club managers will feel better that the game is on a Tuesday, allowing for one less day to be gone from their clubs. It is not expected that the game will sell out the new Meadowlands stadium, though a crowd of 50,000 to 60,000 is possible. Brazil announced its roster earlier this week, a youthful, exciting group that includes domestic starlets (Neymar, Ganso, André) and European-based stars like Alexandre Pato and Dani Alves.

3. I'm curious to know more about Bradley's relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. I knew that Bradley and Sir Alex were friends and that Bradley had spent time studying how Manchester United works first-hand over the years, but Sir Alex's effusive support of Bradley this week makes me wonder if they might be even tighter than I realized. Not only did the Man United manager say that Bradley would do well at Fulham ("I don't think it is beyond his boundaries at all"), but he unloaded what might be the quote of the week: "I'm surprised the USA have not sprinted to his house and given him a new contract." Granted, it may be Coaches Union stuff, but it's never bad to have one of the game's legendary managers on your side.

4. I do think Bradley could be well-suited to coaching in European club soccer. This is in part because he's more of a European-style coach than, say, Bruce Arena (who's American through and through). That said, I'm still leaning toward the notion that Gulati won't extend Bradley's contract. That's going mainly from what Gulati said after the U.S. was eliminated in South Africa, in particular that the U.S. didn't meet his expectations. Gulati also knows that for all of Arena's success -- he got to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, farther than Bradley did in 2010 -- things got pretty stale under Arena by the end of his eight years on the job. If Gulati makes a change, though, he had better be sure that he has a good option to replace Bradley, whose U.S. teams have performed rather well when he's had all of his best players (2007 Gold Cup, '09 Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying, '10 World Cup).

5. The Galaxy's debacle in the Champions League. There were a lot of stunned looks at an MLS media gathering here on Tuesday night as we watched Los Angeles get housed by Puerto Rico 4-1 in CONCACAF Champions League on a big-screen TV. The Galaxy may have been playing without goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defender Omar González, but that was Donovan, Edson Buddle and many other starters out there for the embarrassing drubbing at home. The word is that MLS wants to be the best league in CONCACAF in the next five years. That's a tall order, considering how rich the Mexican league is (richer even than the Argentine and Brazilian leagues), but the only way to reach that goal is to start winning the CONCACAF Champions League.

6. The transfer market for U.S. national teamers. Several U.S. national team players may yet be on the move at club level before the start of the European season. The list includes Jozy Altidore, Jay DeMerit,Benny Feilhaber, DaMarcus Beasley and perhaps Donovan. Spain's Villarreal is unlikely to keep Altidore, who has been linked to teams in Turkey (Besiktas, Fenerbahce), the Netherlands (Ajax) and England (Fulham). DeMerit is out of contract, having left Watford, as is Beasley after departing Glasgow Rangers. Feilhaber may yet leave Denmark's Aarhus, which was relegated after last season, and Donovan may yet have offers come in for him to leave MLS.

7. Diego Maradona is out. I'll miss Maradona's entertaining press conferences now that he's out as the coach of Argentina, but I'm surprised that there was even a question about whether he would stay in the job. As a coach at club level and now with the national team, Maradona has not performed well results-wise. You need to be more than a motivator, and Maradona's decision to yank Juan Sebastián Verón from the lineup early in World Cup 2010 revealed a coach who just wasn't sound tactically. I'm curious to see what comes next for El Diego. Personally, I'd love to see him start a reality TV show with his good friend Mike Tyson.

8. Marquee MLS clash. Some real buzz is starting to build for a regular-season MLS game, which isn't something you ordinarily see. The showdown between New York and Los Angeles at Red Bull Arena on August 14 is already a sell-out. You've got the league's two biggest markets. You've got first place in the West against second place in the East. You've got a brand-new $200 million stadium. And you've got Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Ángel and maybe Rafael Márquez. Should be fun.

9. One U.S. player who didn't make the World Cup team is off to a good start at his new European club. Former Chivas USA player Sacha Kljestan scored for Belgium's Anderlecht in its Champions League qualifier victory against The New Saints of Wales on Tuesday. Kljestan has been playing regularly in the preseason for Anderlecht, which won the Belgian league last season. It could be a springboard for a rejuvenated national-team career for Kljestan, who's still just 24.

10. This week's Movie Rec: If you read my old college basketball Mailbag, you'll know that I'm a movie buff, particularly when it comes to indie movies that deserve more attention. This week's pick: The Kids Are All Right, starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple grappling with the news that their high-school-age kids have tracked down their biological father (Mark Ruffalo). Plenty of well-done, funny dialogue here--and a nice departure from the usual brainless summer fare.

11. Another big name in MLS? I have some solid new sources in Brazil thanks to my trip there for an SI magazine story in April. They're telling me that Ronaldinho may yet come to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but it wouldn't be until at least 2011.

See you next Wednesday at Planet Fútbol ...

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