Yesterday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber addressed several issues in his annual Associated Press Sports Editors meeting. Foremost among the topics was, as in years past, the state of MLS expansion.
“Sacramento is MLS ready. They’ve got 9,500 season tickets, good in any pro sports league,” Garber said on Thursday. “There’s not a lot of competition there, and we seem to do better in those markets with less competition. There’s an ownership group that’s solid.”
In the face of growing public criticism over a unwise rate of expansion prior to developing the quality of play behind it, there were signals that his plan has been tempered by realism. He said the current plan is for Atlanta and Minnesota to join in 2017 and LAFC and Miami to join in 2018. The next round of expansions will bring the tally up to 28 MLS teams which would be set by the mid-2020s. The league’s plan is to add 2 teams starting in 2020, and having two more join a couple years afterwards. The commissioner confirmed Sacramento and St. Louis lead a group of potential 2020 expansion cities.
4 spots. 7 candidate #MLS expansion cities. St. Louis (likely), Sacramento (definitely), Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, Austin, Cincinnati
— Women United FC (@wunitedfc) April 22, 2016
Recently, Cincinnati has made a loud entrance into the USL pulling in more than 35,000 total fans in its first two home games, setting a league record of 20,497 last Sunday. Apparently Cincinnati’s ownership group called Don asking when the club could join MLS. “I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to wait a while,'” Garber mused.
If nothing else, MLS has done a remarkable job at positioning itself in the marketplace as the end all be all of top tier professional men’s soccer, but the reality is 28 teams may not satisfy a hungry public outcry for a team in every metropolitan area. In some ways that is a beautiful thing. Yet, in other ways, there’s reason to worry about teams outpacing each other, balancing a system of parity and single entity with natural market forces. It’s also evident that the magic number of 28, is at least in part, comparable to NFL’s 32 and MLB’s 30 (who just announced their intention to reach 32), albeit both ‘expanded’ at a much more conservative pace than what MLS is striving to stably achieve. It’s a bold plan. Cooperation with and promotion of lower level leagues, grassroots development would be a good option.
U.S. Soccer and MLS – Growing the Game, Together?
Discussion about the growth of the quality of the game and the different objectives of the MLS and USNT brings up murkier waters more difficult to navigate. Rhetoric has been hurled in both directions so keeping track of what their current stance is requires a bit of forgiveness of the past. In Garber’s opinion, the safest approach here is to admit, everyone around the world is getting better (which is true of course). But, then he goes further to drive home the possibility that part of that is because of MLS creating stable playing conditions that help less historically solid nations built stronger programs.
“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.”
Costa Rica might not have been an obvious choice, but intriguingly, the internationalism of MLS is undeniable. Whether it’s causation or correlation however, is yet to be determined. Currently the league has a total of 246 players born outside the USA and Canada, from 57 different countries. Eight are from Costa Rica.
To Play or Not to Play (in MLS), that’s Still the Question.
Asked what he thought of Klinsmann’s recommendation to USMNT players to join foreign clubs, Don Garber replies, “I have a very different view than our national team coach does.” Don’s belief is that MLS gives “players an opportunity to play day in and day out, lead a team and get lots and lots of reps, as opposed to going overseas to test their courage and test their mettle and maybe not playing.” That brings up some points worth mentioning: 1) Most coaches feel quality, competitive playing time and opportunity create better technical, fast-thinking players. 2) Most coaches also know the best way to bring out a player’s independent creativity is by throwing them into the unknown (at least a little). But, most importantly, 3) Is it worth the risk? The worry is most won’t see playing time overseas. And why not? Time and time again, we hear from MLS coaches that MLS players are more than good enough to build a competitive and world-class U.S. Men’s National Team for the World Cup. Time and time again we hear that MLS is meant to become (or some say already is) a top-tier world league. If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t matter where they play. You’d at least hope that we’d be good enough. Challenges build strength of character, whether they happen in your own backyard or in a country where you don’t speak the language. Personally, I’ve felt that international competition and experience builds leadership and inner strength like very little else can.
The reality is, in this international game, players are imported and exported according to market conditions and we can’t isolate ourselves. If and when MLS is a top league in the global sense, balance will come, or we’ll adjust to be more competitive in other facets, attracting world-class players of all ages from everywhere, not just in the U.S..
Garder readily admits MLS is still in its investment and growth phase, urging caution before overspending.
“It doesn’t make economic sense for us because the revenues would not be able to cover the increased costs of being able to have a $100 million roster.”
It’s probably now too late for a truce between Garber/MLS owners and Klinsmann/US Coaches, but a lot of the tension could have been dealt with early on had they merely discussed how to work together towards common short-term (4-8 year) objectives. Klinsmann, for his part, seems to have attempted to explain his side of the global picture lately, and is regularly seen supporting his USMNT players (MLS and non-MLS) on social media as they compete in their respective leagues. Of course, he’ll also come out and criticize them as he feels is needed.
“For example, there is the feeling out there that MLS owners are not really on board, but it’s because I was never given the opportunity to speak in front of them and explain the technical side of what we’re doing with the national teams. So there’s maybe a misconception with some people because I was never given the opportunity to explain, this, this, and this. There are very few people that can explain to you different levels of leagues, different levels of environments, different levels of continents.” – Jurgen Klinsmann.
“We’ve raised our hand and waved it really really loudly that we want to be one of the test leagues.” Don Garber and Abbott both said that the USL could begin experimenting with video replay as early as this season.
Equal Pay? NWSL and MLS?
Don Garber indicated that he does have an opinion on this issue, yet quickly sidestepped a clear yes or no. “I’m confident we will do the right thing. We need to be on the right side of history here.”
How exactly will NWSL and MLS work together in the future and will it look like Orlando, Portland and Houston with MLS investing in NWSL teams? As NWSL continues it’s rise and passes into a sustainable phase, many have wondered where MLS will participate if at all. NWSL alone may not be able to maintain or raise the level of pay, attendance and merchandising, but this is where MLS/SUM are at their best.
“Our goal is to raise the overall perception of professional soccer in this country–both men’s and women’s, our leagues and others. 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.”
Garber was vague in his timeline and specifics, but echoed recent comments with “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.”
Everyone wants a piece of the soccer pie. Let’s see if we can split it up a little more fairly.
feature photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images