Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber responded to FIFA president Sepp Blatter's recent criticisms of MLS on Wednesday, telling SI.com he was "a bit surprised" by Blatter's remarks.
"I know he's aware of the progress being made," said a somewhat bewildered Garber, adding later, "I look forward to inviting the [FIFA] president to an MLS game, and I'm sure when he does attend he'll be very pleasantly surprised."
Blatter issued his MLS criticisms in an interview with Al Jazeera last week. "There is no very strong professional league" in the United States, Blatter said, adding that MLS was not "recognized by the American society." Blatter concluded that he thought MLS should be much further along by now in its development. "It's been 18 years, it should have been done now," he said. "But they are still struggling."
Garber was careful in acknowledging FIFA's help in starting MLS in 1996, but the commissioner clearly wanted to provide details on the league's accomplishments.
"We have always had a good relationship with FIFA and president Blatter," Garber said. "Without FIFA and the World Cup coming here in '94, there's no Major League Soccer. But I know he's aware of the progress being made, and as such I was a bit surprised."
Garber confirmed Wednesday he canceled his plans to attend the FIFA Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich next week -- he has been a regular at the event in previous years -- and will instead be on hand next Monday at Soccer Night in Newtown, an event featuring 30 MLS players for those affected by the recent shooting tragedy in Connecticut.
As for the state of MLS, the league now has 19 teams (up from 12 in 2006), with 13 of them playing in stadiums built primarily for soccer. National TV ratings remain disarmingly low, having held steady in the 0.2 and 0.3 range for the last decade. But in 2012 MLS did set its all-time average attendance record of 18,807, making it the seventh-highest attended league in the world.
"To be fair, for those who don't live here in North America or spend a lot of time in the United States, it's hard to comprehend how powerful the other major sports leagues are," Garber said. "If you live in Europe or South America there's only one [major] sport, the sport of football. We have sports in the U.S. that are as powerful here as football is in its respective countries, and we have at least four that have been around for over 100 years. And all have had the benefit of building a fan base over many generations."
"Even against that backdrop, we have made tremendous progress over the last 17 years," Garber continued. "Interestingly, we're probably recognized as being more significant in many ways here in the U.S. than we are in other parts of the football world because of some of those developments: three broadcast partners, every game televised in HD, amazingly strong corporate support, lots of new stadiums and a great fan base that has us now in the U.S. and Canada ranked third [in average attendance] among all of the major leagues after the NFL and Major League Baseball. Those are pretty remarkable developments and ones that we're very proud of."
"Our owners, our players and our staff all accept that our job is not even remotely close to being finished. We feel pretty good about what's happened over the first 20 years, but it will be in my view many years before we've achieved our goal. We hope in 10 years to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world."
MLS truly does feel "major league" in cities like Portland, Kansas City, Vancouver and Seattle, where the Sounders drew an average of 43,144 fans in 2012. Other teams (Columbus, Dallas, New England, Chivas USA) don't feel major league, and all drew less than 15,000 per game last season.
When I asked Garber if there wasn't some aspect of tough-love truth in Blatter's comments, given MLS' low TV ratings, the commissioner said: "No, I don't believe so. You've got to continue developing the fundamentals and get a solid foundation before you can build a massive national television audience. We're doing better than expected as it relates to the fundamentals, and we'll continue to work on our national TV ratings, and that might be a project that will take some time. But our broadcast partners continue to believe in the league, and I believe there will be even more interest in our package when it's up after the 2014 season."
Asked if Blatter's comments would hurt MLS with potential multinational sponsors, Garber argued they would not. "Not in any way," he said. "The sports industry has enormous respect for us. Several years ago, against all the other major leagues, they [the Sports Business Journal] recognized us as the league of the year. The Seattle Sounders were recognized as the team of the year in 2009. Our corporate sponsorship base continues to grow. Our relationships with municipal governments providing support for soccer stadium development is at an all-time high. Investment in our league is at an all-time high and in some ways the envy of soccer leagues around the world.
"So no, I don't believe his comments hurt us in any way. But I think it's important to stand up and say that Major League Soccer -- while we have a lot of work to do -- is now thriving and making an impact."
Is it fair for Blatter to think MLS should have been much farther along 19 years after the 1994 World Cup in the United States? Garber said no.
"I don't think anybody believed MLS would be in the position it is today when it was launched in 1996," he said. "We have 19 teams and strong broadcast and corporate support and great players being developed in MLS and continuing to play here like Landon [Donovan] or perform at a high level like Clint [Dempsey]. We have world-class players coming here like [David] Beckham and [Thierry] Henry. It's a challenge to expect that we would be at the level of the other football leagues around the world, or even the other major sports leagues here in the U.S., which are now more than 100 years old."
By the time we were done talking, it was clear that Garber was trying to stay positive about MLS without opening verbal fire on Blatter. But he didn't exactly offer a ringing endorsement of the FIFA president when I asked if he thought U.S. Soccer should continue to support Blatter as the USSF has done since 1998.
"I consider Sunil [Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president] a good friend, and I believe he's been a very good president of the federation," Garber said. "And I will support the position he takes on behalf of the U.S. Soccer community."
Garber had no comment on that one.