Garber indicates significant changes for next season
LOS ANGELES -- MLS commissioner Don Garber delivered his annual, end-of-season State of the League address here Friday afternoon. Here are the highlights, and what it will mean for the domestic circuit in 2009:
The news that Montreal is out of the running came as a total shock. A few months ago, Canada's second-largest city seemed like the front-runner to be one of the next two teams to join MLS, and not just among the three Canadian bidders. (Vancouver and Ottawa are the others.)
Montreal has an elite USL team, a new, expandable soccer-specific venue, and strong backers in the Saputo family (on Forbes' 2006 list of the world's richest people) and George Gillett, the billionaire who owns the NHL Canadiens and 50 percent of Liverpool FC. Plus, it would have been a natural rival for uber-successful Toronto FC.
In explaining why the bid collapsed earlier this week, Garber said the cost of expanding L'Impact de Montreal's 13,000-seat stadium was a central stumbling block. (The $40 million entry fee apparently was the other.)
"Montreal had to evaluate what kinds of private capital they needed to renovate their stadium, to fund the expansion fee, [and] what level of public support would exist for their stadium," Garber said. "I'm not sure they were able to come to terms, in this economic environment, [with] the level of private capital associated with that."
While Garber cited the sagging economy repeatedly throughout his speech, the plummeting Canadian dollar, now worth 78 cents on the greenback after being on par earlier this year, apparently had little to do with Montreal's withdrawal. It certainly hasn't dissuaded Canada's other candidates.
"Ottawa blew us away" with their presentation, Garber said. He also heaped praise on the pitch Vancouver's boosters made to league brass here Friday, and admitted that he is intrigued by the possibility of having three teams -- Seattle (Sounders FC debuts in 2009), Vancouver and Portland -- another expansion candidate -- playing within easy traveling distance of one another in the soccer-ripe Pacific Northwest.
As for Miami's high-profile, FC Barcelona-backed bid, Garber was a bit more cautious: "Miami has been a challenging market for pro sports generally. We were there once and were not successful. So if we go back to Miami, we better get it right. We still have some work to do there."
First steps toward recognizing FIFA calendar
At the All-Star game in July, Garber suggested that shutting down the league during peak summer weekends -- even when top stars are missing because of World Cup qualifying commitments -- would cripple the league financially. But after Toronto FC was forced to field a front-office staffer, retired MLSer Tim Regan, because they didn't have 11 available players for a September match played on an international fixture date, the writing for this move was on the wall. To the league's credit, it responded sensibly.
Other than starting the season a week earlier in 2009, the details haven't yet been sorted out. But Garber stated that teams will get to choose between shutting down entirely during two international weekends in 2009 or playing a reduced schedule during four of the FIFA dates.
First, the regular season. With the circuit swelling to 15 teams next year, some change was necessary. Fielding an odd number of teams isn't ideal, but the upside is that this is the closest MLS has ever come to having a balanced schedule.
Each team will play every other once home and once away in 2009 -- but with a twist: two more intra-conference "rivalry" games, which maintains the current 30-game schedule. Why not just play 28 games, you ask? Because owners are loath to give up home dates, especially now that most teams play in their own stadiums and have access to additional revenue generated from parking and concession sales.
More significantly, Garber announced that clubs won't have their rosters stretched to the breaking point by having to compete in both SuperLiga and CONCACAF Champions League, as was the case this year. In 2009, the top four teams that didn't qualify for the Champions League will play in SuperLiga instead.
Senior rosters expanded, reserve division eliminated
On the surface, and with expansion looming, getting rid of up to six developmental players per team looks shortsighted. Garber argued it's necessary, that putting some of the millions spent on maintaining a flawed reserve system into improving first teams is the proper priority during a financial downturn.
Truth is, it's hard not to agree. The last four members of the current 28-man rosters typically don't get much, if any, first-team action. And while the move might mean fewer Danny Cepero-like stories in the future, if the money saved means a team like New England can afford to retain a World Cup vet like Avery John (who signed with a USL team for more money), it's justified.
The future of the playoffs, and of the MLS Cup
The MLS finale has been played at a neutral site since the league's 1996 inception. That might change at some point over the next few years.
Garber said that in recent years, "I don't think we had the ability in a handful of our markets to be able to play that final game on a week' s notice in any particular stadium," but that as early as next season, it might consider doing so.
Also, beginning in 2010, MLS will consider instituting a single-elimination, first-round playoff at the home of the higher seed, as opposed to the current home-and-home, aggregate-goal series, Garber said.
-- The commish said that all 27,000 tickets for Sunday's finale have been sold. Still, expect to see some fed-up Galaxy season ticket holders dressed as empty seats at the HDC.
-- For a half-hour each on Friday, groups from Ottawa, Portland, Miami and Vancouver lobbied the MLS Board of Directors to become teams 17 and 18. The Atlanta contingent has already met with Garber & Co., while St. Louis gets its shot this weekend. The expansion-sweepstakes winners will be picked before the 2009 season begins, Garber said.
-- Teams will be allowed up to 20 senior players next year, up two from this season.
-- The top two teams in each conference will earn automatic berths in the 2009 playoffs, down from three in 2008. The next four teams in the standings, regardless of conference, earn wild cards, up from two this year.
-- MLS' 14th season kicks off March 21, 2009.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.