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Don Garber on MLS expansion, NWSL, equal pay, replay, more

MLS commissioner Don Garber touched on a number of hot-button issues with the Associated Press Sports Editors on Thursday.

NEW YORK – Wednesday, Don Garber's phone rang. On the other end, the MLS Commissioner said, was a representative from the Lindner family, owners of USL club FC Cincinnati. The club has made a big splash in its first two games in the U.S.'s third tier, drawing over 35,000 total fans in its first two home games (including a USL-record 20,497 on Sunday). According to Garber, the Cincinnati ownership group wanted to know when the club could join MLS. 

“I said, 'Well, you’ll have to wait a while,'" Garber said. 

The anecdote was one of many Garber told over the course of an hour-plus conversation with journalists as part of the Associated Press Sports Editors annual commissioners meetings. It was a conversation that was dominated by talk of expansion but also touched on multiple other topics of importance to MLS and U.S. soccer as a whole. 

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The biggest news, perhaps, came when Garber claimed that the next round of expansion decisions, which would bring the league up to 28 teams, would be done sometime in the mid-2020s and would be the last such decisions the league would make over the next 10 years. 

Garber said the league's intention is to add two teams starting in 2020, with two more entering the league in the same season a couple years after that. 

"There was a time when we were trying to figure out how to get cities and communities and investors to want an MLS team, and now we need to figure out how to get all the cities that want an MLS team to be prioritized for us so that we can grow our league for the rest of time," Garber said. "When we were looking at expanding in our last round, we did not think in our wildest dreams that we would have 60,000 people coming out in the second year for the opening game in Orlando, or that we would be playing in the Citrus Bowl and now have to build a soccer stadium that is now 10,000 seats larger than we originally planned. That's not something that was part of the original plan, to be frank."

Here are some more notes from the Garber's conversation:

More expansion

On the ongoing quest to finalize an MLS team in Miami: "It's going to happen. If it doesn't happen, it would surprise us." Garber says that the Miami group paid cash for a piece of downtown real estate for its stadium, but still has to finalize its investor group because the stadium will be privately financed and cost $200 million. The investor the group is targeting, Garber said, is a major figure in Miami real estate. 

"Their investor, should we close, is going to be a real guy," Garber said. "I'm very confident and bullish. I always throw out these dates then miss them, but I think in the next couple months we will [be prepared to start in] '18."

On MLS's chances in St. Louis: Lack of a suitable stadium site and dearth of qualified investors held MLS back from St. Louis before, but Garber said that MLS is currently talking with a group of potential owners, and hopes to capitalize on the fact the NFL's Rams have left for Los Angeles. 

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"There is a [stadium] site that is ready. There is public support that we believe we could tap into. The governor and the mayor and other city leaders are engaged. I believe St. Louis is a very, very high-potential market," Garber said. He emphasized that both the availability of the land for the stadium site and the fallout from the Rams leaving are temporary, creating a sense of urgency, on MLS's end, to get a deal done.

Garber also mentioned that St. Louis's proximity to Kansas City makes it a good strategic choice for MLS, so as to encourage a regional rivalry. 

Sacramento's strong push: Garber said it was accurate that St. Louis and Sacramento currently lead the pack for the next round of MLS expansion, which SI's Brian Straus reported on Wednesday. The commissioner praised the "Built for MLS" rally in Sacramento he visited early this week, though he noted the presence of giant signs of his head in the crowd as being "a little unnerving."

Expansion power rankings: Garber offered the following cities as future expansion targets, in order of priority: Detroit, San Diego, and San Antonio/Austin. He also said he would be remiss if he did not mention Cincinnati.  

LAFC: Garber said the new Los Angeles club "needs to get moving fast" on a stadium deal if they hope to start playing in it in 2018. The stadium's planning is in the very advanced stages, said Garber, but getting the actual construction started has been the issue.

More international spots a possibility: Addressing concerns that such rapid expansion would dilute the talent pool of American players, Garber suggested that MLS would consider increasing limits on international players allowed on MLS rosters. "But," Garber said, "we need to be mindful that our laser focus is on being the drive of our national team. It's all a balance." Garber says MLS is committed to maintaining some form of international player limit regardless. ​

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The women's game 

MLS/NWSL partnerships: In a Q&A with Grant Wahl late last year, Garber said that he's like to see every MLS club invest in operating an NWSL team. Currently, three MLS clubs do: Orlando, Houston, and Portland. However, when asked by on Thursday if there was any sort of league-level incentive for teams to make those sorts of investments, Garber said there wasn't.  

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"Our goal is to raise the overall perception of professional soccer in this country–both men's and women's, our leagues and others," Garber said. "I think as the women's game gets more and more popular, it just makes sense for teams that have the infrastructure to add NWSL teams."

"I think you'll see, very soon, half of our clubs launching and managing women's teams. When and how and what the specifics are, I don't know."

Equal pay: Garber said he did have an opinion on the U.S. women's national team equal pay filing, but did not expand on it except to say "I'm confident we will do the right thing. We need to be on the right side of history here."


• A new media access agreement is in place: Among the many cultural obstacles foreign players face when coming to MLS is the drastically different media environment. In Europe, for example, a player can easily go an entire season without ever speaking to media, coaches are only made available immediately after games, and the vast majority of training sessions are closed to reporters. In MLS, media can enter the locker room after games and in many cases may attend training sessions. Garber offered the example of Didier Drogba, who was taken aback at the media requirements when they were explained as part of his negotiation process with the league. 

"They freak out about it," Garber said of foreign players' reactions to the U.S. press' level of access. "We needed to get our owners to say, 'You're here now, you're making a lot of money, more money than they'd make overseas,' and they have to understand that the media needs the information that you can give them while they're covering the match."

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To that end, Garber announced that the MLS board has recently approved a new media policy, and though he did not provide many specific details, the general idea behind it seemed to be that players would be made more accessible.

MLS president Mark Abbott said that the new guidelines were created in part to match MLS's access to that of the "big four" American sports leagues. 

Abbott also said, in response to player hesitancy at talking to the media, that MLS is developing an education process for players that involves showing clips of famous athletes (Abbott mentioned LeBron James and Kobe Bryant) answering questions from media. 

"Once [incoming foreign players] see that," Abbott said. "They then get the framework, and they understand it."

Abbott said the new media access policy will mandate player availability after practice every day, player availability after each game, players participating in postgame press conferences. It will be put into action, Abbott said, in the next few weeks. 

Self-promotion: MLS will produce over 600 hours of video content that it will distribute itself and via its broadcast partners, Garber said, adding that MLS spends more money producing its own video content than its broadcast partners are spending on the league's behalf. 


• Instant replay: "We've raised our hand and waved it really really loudly that we want to be one of the test leagues," Garber said, adding that there is another league in Europe that wants to do the same thing. Garber and Abbott both indicated that the USL could begin experimenting with video replay as early as this season. 

Soccer's worth: Garber: "The market for professional soccer in this country is $3.2 billion. We are a $1 billion industry. So we have $2 billion to grow into." It is presumed that by "we" Garber meant domestic soccer properties as a whole, not just MLS. 

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• On the U.S. national team's recent struggles: "I think it hurts the overall perception of the men's game when we're not able to grow as fast as the sports is growing around the rest of our country. When you strip it all down, I do think our men's national team is getting better. I think the rest of the world is getting better also, and in many parts of the world getting better faster in places that we didn't expect. Nobody expected Costa Rica to have the national team that they have. A lot of that has to do with Major League Soccer. There are a lot of Costa Rican players in MLS."

Olympic failure: "It hurt when we didn't qualify for the Olympics. I think at the youth level, we're just not good enough, and not as good as we need to be."

Miazga transfer amount confirmed: Garber mentioned "investing in ways that are not economically rational at the academy level" as a way that MLS helps the growth of soccer in the United States. By way of example, he offered the case of Matt Miazga, who Garber said was sold to Chelsea for $5 million while the league spends $30 million on youth development per year. "It doesn't make economic sense, but it does make sense in that we're building the foundation of this sport under Major League Soccer. That's one of the values we provide our federation and our country," Garber said.