- MLS's commissioner addresses the race for expansion teams 25-28, timetable details and Landon Donovan's comeback, answering a wide array of questions.
FRISCO, Texas — Before watching two MLS originals contest the final of one of global soccer’s oldest competitions, commissioner Don Garber spent a few minutes Tuesday evening with a roundtable of reporters, and then individually with SI.com, addressing issues concerning the league’s future.
On the field, FC Dallas defeated the New England Revolution, 4-2, to win its second U.S. Open Cup title and bring to a close a 19-year trophy drought. Off the field, questions about FCD’s ability to retain its young talent, the format of the CONCACAF Champions League it’ll be playing in again next season—and where New England will be playing period—were among the topics discussed.
Below is a summary of Garber’s comments on significant or interesting issues, starting with the popular subject of MLS expansion:
On a timeline and procedure governing the league’s plans to grow to 28 clubs
“The first step to determining that is an expansion committee meeting in New York the second week of November. We’re preparing extensive data on various markets and what the impact of expansion would be on a wide variety of aspects of the league. That group will meet for a couple days.
“We’ll talk about it further at the December board [of governors] meeting after MLS Cup and we’ll hopefully be able to come out of those meetings with a view as to what our plan is. And the most important part of that is the timing.”
On whether MLS is a good investment, considering rising expansion fees and player acquisition/development costs, a slight growth in TV ratings and the fact that the league is locked into its current broadcast deal through the 2022 season
“Expansion fees are not a function of a short-term return on investment. They’re buying into a partnership and compensating for the dilution of all national revenues for existing members and buying an asset that, over time, has proven in all leagues and certainly in MLS to appreciate in value.
“It isn’t about the next television deal. It’s about the overall growth in the popularity of Major League Soccer and how that will deliver economic value and then eventual financial return. It’s proven since 1996 that investing in Major League Soccer is a good bet. There has been appreciation in every owner's investment in the league … I’m convinced, as are our current investors and our future investors, that appreciation in the value of an MLS team will continue to grow as the league and our sport grows in value in the U.S. and Canada.”
On the potential danger of over-expanding
“When I look at what’s happening across the U.S. for the most part, because I think we’re fully expanded in Canada, and you see markets like Austin and San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Cincinnati, these are big cities that have fans that already are engaged with the sport at some level professionally. I don’t know how we don’t provide those fans and owners and municipalities the opportunity to be involved in MLS. We’ve got to be smart about it, careful about it.
“I go to sleep at night continually thinking that we should not make the mistakes of the [original] NASL or other leagues that have expanded too quickly. It would be a shame to take our eye off the ball. But I don’t think we’re at that point yet. It’s 28 teams for us. We’re a long way from 28. We still haven’t finalized our 24th team [Miami]. That gives us five more teams to fill over the next however-many years.”
SI.com asked Garber to provide an update on several current MLS markets seeking stadium solutions and then more detail on the expansion landscape
Will the Revolution be playing in their own, soccer-specific stadium in five years?
“I believe so, and I’d be shocked if they weren’t.”
Has New York City FC, now in its second season at Yankee Stadium, made any progress on a home of its own?
“NYCFC is a great MLS team. It’s proven that the [New York] market can support two clubs. The Red Bulls are better because NYCFC is in town. More people care about the sport in a very important city. The rivalry breaks through the professional sports clutter in the Tri-State area. Both teams are performing very well competitively. Both teams have focused academy and development programs. Both have great commercial partners. And we waited many, many years for the Red Bulls to get their stadium situation resolved and it’s going to take quite some time in the case of NYCFC. But they are laser focused on it.
“The partnership with the Yankees is very strong. The games are fun and packed with passionate fans. For now, it’s working really, really well.”
Erick Thohir has sold his majority stake in Inter Milan. What does that mean for D.C. United?
“When I read the news [that Thohir had sold] I was excited by it because hopefully we’ll have more of Erick’s time and energy. [United managing partner] Jason Levien’s done a wonderful job. MLS worked for nearly 20 years to get a stadium project finalized through multiple ownerships gourds in D.C. Jason came in with Erick and in a very short period of time has a great project [at Buzzard Point] that we hope to be able to break ground on before the end of the year. So we’re very optimistic about what’s happening there.”
On progress, or lack thereof, in Miami
“Miami has been a challenging situation for us for many years. We are as close as we’ve been, though that hasn’t changed over the last couple of months. We are still working with the investor group to finalize their stadium situation and to solidify their total ownership structure. It has taken more time then all of us had hoped. But one way or another, we feel like we’re getting close to the end of the process.”
Note: Garber added that David Beckham and Tim Leiweke, who are spearheading the Miami MLS effort, attended a spring event in Las Vegas supporting construction of a potential stadium for the Oakland Raiders because of their relationship with Sheldon Adelson and Las Vegas Sands, not because of an interest in operating their own MLS club in the city.
On potential locations for teams No. 25-28
“I don’t think there’s any market that’s done more than any other, other than Sacramento, which clearly is MLS ready. But we can’t finalize anything there until we know what our overall expansion plan and timeline is. But St. Louis and Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, Austin, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, all are very viable markets with some level of completeness: stadiums, ownership groups …. Sacramento is wired pretty tight right now.”
On how MLS found itself admitting two Uniteds, Atlanta and Minnesota, in 2017
“Each team has got to determine what’s the best possible brand for what they’re trying to achieve in their market and how they’re trying to position their club to their fans, their partners, etc. No one could argue that Atlanta United hasn’t been a massively successful launch at all levels. That team is doing really well. And the more time I spent with [Minnesota majority owner] Bill McGuire and [team president] Nick Rogers and the rest of their ownership group in Minnesota, the more I realized they had a really strong point of view that the brand they had launched in the NASL was uniting two cities and it was effectively resonating among their fan base.
“The decision was, Atlanta came in before we finalized the deal with Minnesota—before we knew we would finalize the deal. [Atlanta] did research and wanted that name and we approved it. While there was some time when I was personally very resistant to the Minnesota name, the more work we did in the market, the more time we did fan research, spoke to all their various constituents, we all realized it was a strong brand and they deserved and earned the right to keep it.”
On Landon Donovan’s return to the LA Galaxy
“I think it’s exciting … I thought Jurgen [Klinsmann’s] quote was a really good one, where he basically said you’re not going to be playing forever. You might as well get the most out of it because at some point it’s going to end. And if you get it back, it’s great. I’m friendly with Landon. He’s one of the few players I actually have a relationship with. Our careers have mirrored each other over the 17 years that I’ve been in the league. I’m happy for him. I hope it’s successful—a good decision. Let’s see how it all plays out. We certainly got a lot of attention. That’s not a bad thing for us.”
On whether MLS can do more to boost or promote the U.S. Open Cup
“I think this tournament should be bigger, more important, more valuable for everybody. It represents the totality of the soccer pyramid—something that’s talked about a lot in the soccer community. The economics of it have changed a bit. I think that’s a positive. I think the [U.S. Soccer] Federation is getting more focused on raising it to a higher level. The fact that [the final is] on ESPN is great.
“I hope the Federation does more and more on that. They raised the prize money, and I think it could be and probably should be even more than that. Why not? If a lower-division team wins it, I think that money really matters.
“There’s a challenge with our calendar … How do we manage all the things that need to take place and how do we prioritize all the competitions? It’s really hard. But we’re not exclusive in those challenges … For us, it’s something we’re going to continue to have to manage—perhaps have larger rosters when we can manage that financially and competitively. But it is what it is. I’m not sure there’s much more we can do short term.”
On former FC Dallas U-18 star Weston McKennie’s decision to reject a senior contract offer from the MLS club to sign with Schalke 04 and the risk and reward of player development programs
“That one hurt. We had a lot of forces that we were working against on signing that player, and that’s the reality of how difficult it is with a player pool at the youth level that continues to attract the attention of very, very aggressive and well-funded international teams. That one hurt. Not sure there’s much more we could’ve done. We did everything we could financially. The player had been in [FCD’s] system for nine years, so when you look at the investment that goes into supporting that development and then you lose him and get nothing, it makes you scratch your had and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then two weeks later you sign Paxton [Pomykal] and you feel a little better about it.
“It’s something that we’re wrestling with. We obviously have part of a broad pyramid of soccer and have all sorts of different constituencies that we have to manage and deal with. But you’ve heard me say this number before: it’s north of $50 million a year we're investing outside of our [MLS] rosters and we’re not necessarily getting that value back in the short term signing those players to our first teams. And you certainly haven't seen a lot of that in the sale on of players. I’m feeling a lot of ownership pressure to ensure that investment will start paying off.”
On the future of the CONCACAF Champions League. There had been some progress made toward revamping the competition’s calendar and perhaps staging it over the calendar year before 2015, when U.S. Department of Justice investigation and indictments forced an overhaul in regional leadership
“It is very important to [MLS] and I can only say that when [new CONCACAF president] Victor Montagliani made his acceptance speech in Mexico, he talked about the things that were important to the various members of CONCACAF, and when it came to the United States, he talked about his willingness to work on the CCL calendar to that we have a tournament that works for all clubs, particularly the two leagues that are driving a lot of the value.
“I’m confident that our technical people and the CONCACAF staff will continue to work to try find a schedule that will be more effective for the tournament. [I’m expecting progress] in the next few months.
“We’re working as a confederation with its two largest members, the U.S. and Mexico, very engaged with CONCACAF to discuss the issue—with the recognition amongst everybody that having a calendar that will help the tournament be more popular is in everybody’s best interest.”