MLS commissioner talks Pacific Northwest rivalry, league's future
NEW YORK -- MLS commissioner Don Garber can breathe a little easier than he did a year ago at this time. He doesn't have to deal with the labor strife that preceded the 2010 MLS season; that headache is left for his old pal Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner whom Garber used to work with back when his game was football, not fútbol.
Twelve years into his tenure, the 53-year-old Garber is looking forward to the start of the 2011 MLS season when Los Angeles meets Seattle on Tuesday (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, 9:30 p.m. ET). There are plenty of storylines to mark the new campaign: expansion outfits in Portland and Vancouver, raising the league's total to an all-time-high 18 teams; an increase in the number of playoff teams from eight to 10; and Charlie Davies' first MLS season, to say nothing of what may be David Beckham's last.
On Thursday, I spent an hour in Garber's plush corner office at MLS HQ, learning firsthand how much he has fallen for his iPad ("It has changed the way I consume information," he said) and how MLS' raised global profile has clogged his international travel schedule more than ever before.
In the course of our interview, Garber touched on a number of topics, including how to spread Pacific Northwest soccer passion to the rest of the league; the positives and negatives of tying Kansas City's new stadium to Lance Armstrong; the league's thinking behind expanding the playoffs; his views on the New York Cosmos and his continued hopes to attract the investment of the Wilpon family; and the age-old question of whether MLS owners would ever consider promotion and relegation.
Here's our discussion, edited for length and clarity:
We've worked hard to fuel that excitement with the away supporters program and the Cascadia Summit that took place last weekend. Certainly if it works in the Pacific Northwest, we should be able to create the same thing in the I-95 corridor and in the Midwest with Kansas City and Chicago and Denver and Columbus.
I know there has been lots of talk about this among our fan base. I'm convinced it will do both, that our regular season won't be diminished by having play-in games. We went through an exhaustive process trying to come up with a format that we believe makes sense. We believe it will. We can't just cater to the loudest voices who have this view that our sole purpose is to have a valuable regular season. Our purpose is to have a valuable competition, and that includes having playoffs that are more meaningful. Because we don't have a single table. We do not have a Champions League that the top four qualify for and the second four qualify for Europa League and the rest are fighting for promotion and relegation, and every game counts because you want to fit into one of those three categories. So we have to find ways we can achieve a variety of objectives.
We've set up a command center in our MLS digital offices. That group will watch every game and be available on a moment's notice to address any issues that arise during the game. But more importantly, they'll be there to more deeply evaluate what's taking place on the field. That's a very positive development. I applaud [USSF general secretary] Dan Flynn for putting it together. This was their idea. They've invested the resources necessary to make it happen.