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MLS All-Star Notes: Mark Abbott on expansion, Blatter; Training contrast

PORTLAND, Ore. — Major League Soccer president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott hosted a collection of media members for breakfast Tuesday morning to discuss some of the things on reporters’ minds. He answered questions for over an hour, and the discussion ranged all over the American soccer consciousness.

In addition to his assertion that MLS would never adopt a promotion-relegation system, Abbott said the league’s expansion will still be capped at 24 teams in 2020 to avoid the rapid-growth troubles of the old North American Soccer League. As it stands, when Orlando City, New York City enter MLS in 2015 and Atlanta joins in 2017, the league will have 22 teams.

David Beckham’s provisional franchise awarded in Miami is currently on the ropes due to problems securing a downtown stadium, which Abbott said would be a deal-breaker should it fall through, but that would be the 23rd team. That leaves multiple markets vying for one final spot.

“There are serious people who have serious interest in MLS,” Abbott said, adding that he doesn’t believe any group is ahead of any other in terms of the negotiations at this point. “We don’t handicap markets in this type of situation.”

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Abbott mentioned the new owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings as one interested group, which is meeting with MLS officials in Portland this week. Abbott also took a recent trip to Las Vegas, which has recently surfaced as an interested party. San Antonio, Austin and Minneapolis were the other cities Abbott mentioned specifically.

At the same time, MLS needs to continue to market itself to cities where it doesn’t have a team, Abbott said. The new multi-year television deal with Univisión, ESPN and FOX will go a long way toward bridging that gap, he said, with dedicated time slots for MLS broadcasts mentioned as one solution to help improve the league’s suffering ratings.

“I think there was some focus on the economics of those deals, and that became the focal point of a lot of the media around it, but as important or maybe more important were a number of things that we talked about with them with respect to fan building, brand building and a number of other things to help grow the audience for our league,” Abbott said. “Together with them, as a media property, you want to have broad following throughout the entire country, so a vehicle to be able to do that are these tremendous media partnerships that we have.”

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Echoing other MLS officials as well as those from U.S. Soccer, Abbott would not mention how much of the money from the deal goes to the league and how much goes to the federation. The partnership includes men’s and women’s national team games as part of the package.

Despite two teams joining the league in 2015, each team will still play 34 regular-season games. The conference alignment – with both Orlando and New York located on the East Coast, current Eastern Conference teams will need to head west in order to create a balance – will be resolved “fairly soon,” Abbott said, but the general schedule of opening day in March and the MLS Cup final in December will stay the same.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter commented on Monday that he expects MLS to align with the fall-to-spring calendar present in most European leagues, but Abbott said exactly what commissioner Don Garber said around the 2013 MLS Cup final: the league hasn’t ruled out the change, but it won’t be happening in the near future.

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Asked if he was surprised Blatter still believes the change is imminent, Abbott seemed flabbergasted. He couldn’t really muster a full-sentence response to Blatter’s latest strange moment in the media.

Finally, with regard to upcoming negotiations to renew the expiring collective-bargaining agreement, Abbott said both sides are committed to beginning the 2015 season on time, without the drama of a looming work stoppage from last time.

Despite the new TV deal, the league is still losing money, Abbott said, which precludes any drastic changes in terms of salary cap and number of Designated Player slots available.

“Without talking about any specific numbers or percentages or any of that, over time, we’re going to continue to invest more and more in players and player development,” Abbott said. “There’s no specific formula or anything I can give you, other than to say we recognize the importance of continuing to grow the product on the field, and there are different ways to go about that.”

Speaking of DP slots, Abbott also addressed the continuing questions surrounding the league’s transparency. It didn’t sound like he expects to see any major revelations in the near future.

“You want the fans to have confidence in the league, so you have to have the level of transparency that is needed for that,” he said. “You also want to be able to make the right types of business decisions to grow the league, so it’s a balance.”

On the eve of the MLS All-Star Game against guest opponent Bayern Munich, here are a few more notes from Portland:

• Bayern Munich and the MLS All-Stars held open training sessions at Providence Park on Tuesday. The stands were closer to capacity and much louder for Bayern’s time on the field, although the MLS contingent had a good number of spectators as well.

It’s not every day the reigning Bundesliga champion trains in an American stadium, so fans were understandably excited. After the session ended, chants of “We want Pep” rained down toward manager Pep Guardiola, who acknowledged them with a wave but didn’t go over to the fans.

• Guardiola’s training session consisted of a series of technical exercises and a possession game at the end. Bayern played 7-on-7 with three neutral players, and despite being a light session before the match on Wednesday, Guardiola still demanded a lot of his players.

He laid into several at one point for failing to switch the point of attack quickly enough, gesturing with wide-open arms and the passionate facial expression and body language fans have grown accustomed to seeing from the perfectionist trainer.

• By contrast, Caleb Porter’s training session focused on choreography and team shape with and without the ball. He lined his team up in a 4-4-2 shape with practice dummies taking Bayern’s place in a 3-4-3 shape.

The key to getting the MLS team to play cohesively and perhaps give Bayern a challenge will be ensuring every player is on the same page. After the press conferences yesterday, it’s clear that Porter understands the challenge his team faces.