As he always does, MLS commissioner Don Garber addressed some of the hot-button issues facing the league on the eve of MLS Cup.

By Grant Wahl
December 07, 2018

ATLANTA — MLS commissioner Don Garber didn’t break any major news during his State of the League address Friday ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Atlanta and Portland, but he did say a few intriguing things. Here were the ones that stood out the most:

A changed playoff format for 2019 

Garber indicated that a formal change of the MLS playoff format in 2019 is likely to come at next week’s owners meetings in New York City. The Athletic reported last month that MLS was set to move to a single-elimination playoff format, with the MLS Cup final taking place earlier, before the November FIFA window.

“There has been lots of talk about changes to the playoff format,” Garber said on Friday. “We’ve been looking hard at it. We’ll be talking to our board about it next week. My guess is we’ll probably end up with something that’s a little bit different than we have now … The idea here is to continually work on making the regular season become more and more important so winning in March is as important as winning in September or October. And our playoff format, the one we’re evaluating, is really going to place a very strong emphasis on the regular season.”

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MLS expansion appears set to move the league beyond 28 teams in the coming years 

With MLS expansion coming in Cincinnati (2019), Nashville (2020), Miami (2020) and Austin (no later than 2021), Garber said MLS will decide the 28th expansion franchise sometime in the next 12 months. Until now, MLS has said it would go to at least 28 teams, but most observers have thought the league would eventually go beyond 28, and Garber gave a clear indication on Friday that it would.

“Every time we evaluate how large we want the league to be, it really is in the context of what we think the country can support,” he said. “We’ve said that we’re not going to expand any further in Canada. So now it’s looking at those cities we’ve been in discussions with … There are half a dozen of them. We will grant the 28th team and make that decision sometime in the next 12 months. There’s no rush. And we’ll have to decide if we want to go forward beyond 28 teams. That’s a discussion that is taking place. We’ll begin to introduce the subject at our board meeting in the middle of next week. I don’t expect an announcement coming out of that, but there’s no doubt in my mind we can support having more than 28 teams in Major League Soccer. No doubt in my mind.”

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Garber has shifted his view on solidarity payments and training compensation in a major way in recent years

With more players from MLS academies going on to sign with clubs in Europe and Mexico, Garber wants MLS clubs to start getting compensation for those players. MLS has not participated in the global practice of solidarity payments and training compensation, but that may change soon.

“This is a big issue for our league,” Garber said. “I don’t know that it’s entirely about young players chasing their dreams as much as it’s international clubs chasing our young players. That’s something we have to wrap our collective minds around to figure out how do we manage that in a way that justifies our owners investing this year north of $100 million outside of our first-team rosters?”

“We are not as a country participants in solidarity and training compensation. I think that probably has to change. We have to find a way where if that’s going to happen, how do we at least get compensated for it? I don’t know how we can justify making the kind of investments we’ve been making.”

“I will say our view of this whole area is very different than it was two, three, four or five years ago. I think the product that we’re developing has become some of our most important assets. We need to start figuring out ways to protect it or find ways to get compensated when we can’t sign them.”

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Garber’s thinking has shifted on selling players

For many years, Garber was steadfast in his belief that he wanted to retain star players whenever possible instead of selling them abroad. That has changed, especially with recent evidence of Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams headed to Bundesliga clubs and Zack Steffen reportedly on his way to Manchester City.

“We need to become more of a selling league,” he said Friday. “As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids peeking through the fence when they see them training. And we all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold.”

“We have this careful balance of how do you retain your stars and create consistency, which is consistent with the major leagues here in our country. We have a different dynamic in the global game. So we have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment we have to make in player development. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around, or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”

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