Garber Q&A: MLS commissioner talks U.S. failure, pro/rel, expansion, more
TORONTO -- These are indeed interesting times for the game of soccer in the United States. The men's side of the game is still reeling from the national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup. Come February, the U.S. Soccer Federation will have a new president for the first time in 12 years. The Columbus Crew's potential move to Austin, Texas, is creating some considerable angst, and not just in Columbus.
It is the job of MLS commissioner Don Garber to wade through this morass and lead North America's domestic league to the other side. There are positives, to be sure -- Atlanta United's inaugural season, improved attendance and television metrics for the playoffs -- but there is no denying the fact that this is the most challenging time for the sport in recent memory.
During an extensive Q&A with ESPN FC, Garber discussed the USSF presidential election and his support of Kathy Carter, the impact of the World Cup qualifying failure on SUM, David Beckham's Miami project and the uncertainty facing the Crew. What's detailed here is the rest of the discussion.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ESPN FC: How much responsibility does MLS bear for the failure to qualify for the World Cup?
Don Garber: I think anybody who has been engaged in the soccer business in our country shares some accountability for where we are today as a sport, and also shares in some of the success that we've had. I've said many times that as a fan, as commissioner of a league and as member of the U.S. Soccer Board, I was very disappointed and in many ways heartbroken by not qualifying. Some of the greatest experiences of my life and of my professional career have been watching the U.S. play in World Cup competition and seeing how that's driven the sport in our country, and seeing how it has made stars out of some of our players.
I don't believe that players who come back to MLS are any less successful in international competition because we don't know what it would be like if they never came home. There has been so much finger pointing and so much blame being thrown around trying to demonize either an entity or decisions that have been made or individuals. While I understand it, I don't think it's productive.
We need to use this as a wakeup call to recognize that there are things that we as a league and we as a federation and we as those responsible for the development of players at the youth level should assess where we are and try to come together as opposed to break apart to figure out how we can get better and ensure that this never happens again.
ESPN FC: What can MLS do to help the national team recover?
DG: I think we just need to continue to do what we've been doing. And recognize that it will take even more investment in our academy programs and perhaps more decisions that need to be made in concert with the federation to be able to accelerate the development of young American players.
That could mean more minutes played for academy players, but it could also mean incentivizing our teams to invest more in their academies and more in their signing of homegrown players. It could mean that we invest more with the French Football Federation to have proper coaching support for our academy programs. It could be that we work with the federation to provide funding that could be passed through to non-MLS academy programs. It could be that we take a greater leadership position in the entire sport to utilize our resources, our expertise and some of our programs to accelerate this process faster.
ESPN FC: You talked about incentivizing teams. What about the training compensation/solidarity payment issue?
DG: Training compensation and solidarity payments, MLS is a beneficiary of that because we are developing more players who are going to come through our academies and leave. So this is not the league against the youth system. I think the federation and the league and the clubs need to come up with some sort of solution that is workable for all. This would be an example of how there needs to be a change in our approach so that we can ensure that more money is invested and more people are benefiting from the development of players, including those players themselves.
ESPN FC: You see guys like Tyler Adams getting a shot, but are enough young players getting a chance in this league?
DG: I do think they are. I've said all along that we need more than a handful of players, whether it's a Tyler Adams or a Kellyn Acosta or even Christian Pulisic. We need hundreds of young players who are playing in our league regularly, and we also need hundreds of young players who are going to be coming out of our system and playing overseas regularly, and it is a numbers game.
We've been in the academy business for less than 10 years. Bayern Munich and Manchester United have been at this for decades. This is going to take time.
I go back to where we are. While I'm deeply disappointed, I actually think that when you have trauma to a system, it forces everyone to take a step back and say, "What went wrong? What do we need to do to improve it? How do we marshal our resources together so that the sum is greater than the individual parts, so that we're in a better position four years from now than we are today?" I want to focus our attention on that and less about some individual or some entity out to dry because some people are unhappy.
ESPN FC: Will MLS take a break next summer for the World Cup?
DG: Yes. We've not announced what that break is. We have shared our recommendation with our ownership, but we will definitely take a break next year.
ESPN FC: A lot of CONCACAF players will go to the World Cup. What does that say about the league?
DG: I think it says that our league is providing opportunities to compete in a professional environment and ultimately benefit their national teams. That should be able to inure benefit to the U.S. men's national team as well, but this is a global sport. We have players from around the world, we have an agreement with our federation to limit the foreign professional players on our rosters, and I think the fact that we are seeing the Roman Torreses of the world excel through him playing in MLS shows that the system isn't wrong when they get into MLS.
There is something happening in that we're not getting enough talent up through the pipeline once they get into MLS. That's something we all need to work on. I'm not at all apologetic that MLS has helped not just the U.S. but also other teams in the region and around the world. That's what professional soccer leagues should be all about.
ESPN FC: What are your thoughts on the current round of expansion?
DG: There's been a very empowering level of energy throughout our country to try to bring MLS to their respective cities. The presentations from Nashville and Cincinnati and Sacramento and Detroit were terrific. In three of the four cases, the mayors came in to be part of the presentation. You've got strong ownership groups, all with downtown stadium plans with investments that could total $400 million in terms of the contribution and capital that would be put into building out a stadium and everything around it.
We'll go through the process. We have an expansion committee call [Friday]. We'll talk to our board about it on Dec. 14. I expect that we'll come out with more direction from that though not a final decision. But I know that we will definitely have two teams to select that will be teams 25 and 26.
ESPN FC: What do you make of the situation in San Antonio, because it seems like they feel hard done by with this situation in Austin.
DG: There's a lot going on in that, and I'm not going to comment on it. Clearly, the county judge has been very aggressive. Our press releases have been clear. We have done absolutely nothing wrong in San Antonio, and I stand by that.
ESPN FC: Eric Wynalda has suggested some changes to MLS, including promotion/relegation and changing the calendar. Have you talked to him? And what do you think about these ideas?
DG: I have met with him, and Eric is someone who clearly has a lot of ideas, and when people are passionate about their ideas, it gets conversation, and conversation is good. The promotion/relegation and changing the calendar ideas are not new. I encouraged Eric to be thoughtful about his comments and to recognize that the federation is not the entity that will determine the structure of MLS, either its competition format or its calendar or anything related to it. It's not the role of the federation.
ESPN FC: And promotion/relegation?
DG: I think I've been very clear from the very beginning. While I appreciate all the social media banter back and forth, the concept of having our league be structured the way it is in England, or the way it is Brazil, is not necessarily what's going to work here in North America. That requires stability. That requires consistency. And to turn that upside down because people think it will be fun or interesting is just not worth the impact and the end result of that.
Where would the Galaxy play today? What would happen to their players? Would they be in our [players] union or the non-unionized USL? What would happen to their local television deal with Time Warner, or their sponsor Herbalife? What would happen to StubHub Center, which has been financed with debt that's guaranteed by the revenues that come into it?
I've got 100 examples of that that are the realities of what it's like to actually run a business. And while I appreciate and actually don't mind the social media fervor underneath it, I think people, when they take a real step back, take a look at MLS and how far it's grown over the years in our current structure, and probably hope that we can continue to grow, as opposed to having things that might make us unstable.
ESPN FC: Your contract is up in 2018. Do you want to continue? Are there talks for you to continue?
DG: There have been talks to continue, and the MLS owners and a committee will get together and try to determine whether or not they want to go forward. Then we'll sit down, I'm sure over the next couple of months, and figure all that out. It's been 18 long years for me, and in the beginning it was all about trying to manage trauma and trying to work to see if it could continue. I think we finally have built something that is thriving and arguably has more and more opportunity in front of it, and I'll have to figure out what I want to do, as will they.
ESPN FC: Will there ever come a time when the leagues let teams spend the salary budget without all these rules?
DG: I think the challenge that we always have, is we're compared to other soccer leagues. But every league here in North America has roster limitations and salary cap and budget distinctions, and ways that salary investment can be used strategically to make the game better and make the league more competitive.
I believe we're still very much in the growth phase. We have to be very smart about how our teams are utilizing their expenditures to be more competitive -- more competitive against Mexico so we can win the CONCACAF Champions League, and more competitive against this influx of international soccer that people have an opportunity to engage in. I think the time might come at some point in the future, but right now, every dollar matters.
When you look at the [Targeted Allocation Money] program, that's been incredibly successful in bringing players, like a Victor Vazquez for example, who can be impactful, while at the same time providing resources to sign homegrown players, or to buy down designated players, to create a system where the league's competitive value grows. I think it is the right thing for where we are now, I don't see it changing anytime soon, but who knows what can happen in the future.
ESPN FC: The playoff schedule, obviously this comes up every year, but with the international window, it seems really drawn out. Is there anything that can be done about that?
DG: It's interesting. We've had our most successful playoffs ever. The last two games were 31,000 and 45,000. Our television ratings on ESPN are up 40 percent. They were up dramatically here in Canada on TSN and TVA. So I think the view that the playoffs have been challenged by the calendar probably isn't true because the interest and measures have increased.
That doesn't mean it's not a real hassle to have to take a break in the November window. I'd love to have MLS Cup before that November break. We continue to look at trying to evolve our schedules so that ultimately we're not in a situation where we're playing our cup in mid-December and having to have a long break between the two legs of our playoffs. But until we're able to find a solution, which is worked on every year by our product strategy committee, I think we are where we are.
ESPN FC: The midweek games have worked better?
DG: It was a courageous move -- move up weekends to the midweek. Attendances were up dramatically across the entire playoff schedule, and our television ratings grew, so we're getting more and more committed fans in our market where they're willing and able to come out for a midweek even on short notice. And it could get to the point where they're willing to come to regular-season games in February, which, right now, we're concerned about being able to execute successfully.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.