Garber talks MLS allocation rules, expansion, more in roundtable
NEW YORK – Major League Soccer will once again alter the primary method MLS teams use to acquire foreign players during international transfer windows, with a revamped allocation order set to be announced next week, league commissioner Don Garber and president Mark Abbott revealed on Friday.
Garber also said that the collective bargaining agreement reached between the league and its players union has yet to be officially ratified. That could help explain why this season's roster rules and regulations have yet to be released by the league. Abbott said he did not have a precise date for when the CBA could be ratified, but said "I don't think it'll be that long of a period of time."
This news came during a roundtable as part of the Associated Press Sports Editors commissioner's tour, which I attended as a representative from SI.com. Garber touched on an array of topics over the course of an hour-long discussion, including a fairly direct assessment of some of the issues he has had with U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, some information on expansion, and insight into the state of things in a few select MLS cities.
"We're riding a wave of shifting demographics, and a country that is so dramatically different today than it was even 20 years ago," Garber said in his opening remarks. "These changes are driving the growth of professional soccer in America."
A solid indicator of that growth: The healthy load of topics that were discussed in the ensuing Q&A. Here, subject-by-subject, are some of the highlights.
Besides the news that new allocation rules are forthcoming, the commissioner also addressed why the allocation ranking is even necessary, given that players experience a free market for their services everywhere else in the world.
"Our owners have the right, after investing what they've invested, to determine how players come into the league," Garber said. "It's not going to be determined by the player."
"We've created a system that has evolved over the years that provides us with some sense of order, so that we have a logical way for players to enter the league. We're still working though that."
As for the mysterious circumstances in which this allocation order is bypassed (see Jermaine Jones' famous "Blind Draw.")
"All I can say is that what happened in the past isn't what will happen in the future," Garber said. "I won't apologize for that, either. We've had to made decisions over the years of developing this league that have allowed us to be put into the position where we are today, and that's pretty darn good.
"I think the time will come, and that time may not be far from now, when there will be far more transparency than there is today...[We] had needed to have some discretion in terms of how we manage something that's relatively new. Clint Dempsey and Bradley and Jones weren't interested in playing in MLS [before]. Now they are."
Speaking of which…
Bradley indirectly started a very public war of words between Garber and Klinsmann with his shock decision to leave Roma of the Italian Serie A in favor of signing with Toronto FC. You can read up on the initial spat here and here, but the basic gist is that Klinsmann thinks Bradley would be better off playing in Europe. Garber disagrees. He reiterated his views in a forthright manner:
"I just don't accept that a guy who's not playing full-time, and is sitting on the bench, and struggling to make the first team, is going to become a better player than being the star of an MLS team, and having to read about himself in the Toronto Sun, and having his owner and his coach beating him up every day because he's got to deliver. While we have many things on which we agree our federation, and many things that we agree with Jurgen about, we disagree about this particular issue.
If there was a guarantee that [Bradley] would know exactly what his role would be [with a potential new European team], or whether he'd be starting, or whether he'd be in that pressured environment that everybody talks about existing internationally, then it would be a different debate. When we got Michael to play in MLS we said 'We're going to put you in an environment with a team that will be investing tens of millions of dollars in their academy program and their training facility and their coaches. So while you may not have that 'nicking at your heels' thing that exists overseas, you'll be playing in an environment that is assured to provide you with day-to-day competition.'"
More words for Klinsmann
Garber's thinly-veiled jabs at Klinsmann weren't limited to questions about Bradley.
In response to a question about acquiring American players: "Regardless to what our national team coach might want us to do, we will do whatever we need to do to ensure that we have the best possible American players here."
On what the national team needs to focus on: "It's not just about that one player, or that one national team friendly that's going to take place. It's what does the national team need to do to develop the best possible system for it to become more competitive today than it was four years ago. Some would argue that it's not. Some would argue that we've performed pretty much the same way since 2002, and I think the records have actually proven that's pretty close to being true."
On the roles he and Klinsmann play in the U.S. soccer landscape: "I believe our national team coach has a short-term objective. That's what he's hired to do. It's to win the Gold Cup, it's to have the best possible team for 2018. Our goals and objectives are broader than that – that's why we agree on some things but don't agree on others."
If you thought MLS might see a period of tranquility after a run of near-constant expansion, think again. With his goal of having 24 teams in the league nearly accomplished, Garber is looking to grow even larger.
"In the next six months, we have to develop a plan with our ownership to determine when we go further, because we will. We will expand this league beyond 24 teams. It's not an 'if,' it's a 'when.'"
Asked by SI.com what the league gains by making an effort to create clubs out of thin air (as in the case of NYCFC, LAFC, and Miami) as opposed to enveloping an already-existing club into the league (like Seattle, Portland, and Minnesota United), Garber responded: "We want to go to markets where we have great ownership, where we have a history of soccer success, where we know we can get a good building. Whether that preexists or if it can exist in a new market, we're kind of ambivalent about it."
Garber also touched on issues surrounding two of the three new clubs set to enter MLS in the next decade, as well as David Beckham's ongoing Miami project:
Los Angeles Football Club: "I meet with [majority owner] Peter Guber monthly and speak to him weekly. He's put together a group of local folks and has partners from Asia that are all very young, sports-oriented investors. They're very engaged socially, I'm very bullish about their plans and their management of the process so far. It's going to be really cool to have two teams in LA."
Minnesota United: "We knew both ownership groups were strong and believed in the game. Both ownership groups were really committed to MLS' vision and plan, but one wanted to build a stadium that we believe will be more appropriate for our league in that market and going forward. We wanted a downtown soccer stadium. We're confident that with the connections they have and the capacity that they have, that they will go through a process to finalize a deal."
Miami: "I believe more than most that Miami is a microcosm of all the powerful things going on in our country, and those are the things that are driving the success of Major League Soccer. I'd like to be there. I'm optimistic that we can be there.
When asked to give a possible entry date for a Miami team, however, Garber said simply "I can't answer that."
Other club mentions
On AEG's 50% stake in the Houston Dynamo being up for sale: "I won't say that the Dynamo are actively for sale. What I will say is that Phil Anschutz and his partners have committed to have AEG's partial ownership of that team be bought out by a committed local investor so that we can move to having no single owner owning more than one team" (AEG also owns the Los Angeles Galaxy).
Montreal Impact: "[Winning the CONCACAF Champions League] would be a tall task, but the club has been overdelivering on everyone's expectations, and we're very proud of them. They look like a team that could stand toe-to-toe with any team in the region."
Asked by SI.com if the league would be willing to continue to reschedule league games to assist clubs in their CCL bids as it did for the Impact for the games surrounding the two-legged final, Garber said "Absolutely."
"Going forward, we will do better in the CONCACAF Champions League," he continued. "It hasn't been a priority for us in the past, but it will be for us going forward."
NYCFC: "We would not have launched NYCFC if we believed that they would not get a stadium. We certainly would like it sooner as opposed to later, though its going to take longer than we thought. [The owners] know they have to, and they're very focused on it, they're just not doing it in the press and I think that's actually a very good idea on their part."
Sporting Kansas City: "One of the great success stories in professional sports. That's a bold statement, but if you think about where that team was, playing in a football stadium, and we were looking to move it, to where it is now…It's amazing."