By AVI CREDITOR
With Major League Soccer continuing to grow, the state of the league's schedule and the future of league expansion remain trending topics in league circles.
MLS commissioner Don Garber harped on both in his State of the League address on Thursday, alluding to the the fact that the schedule will not be getting any longer despite more teams being added and that while putting a second team in New York is still a priority, the league is meeting with other cities to talk about expansion.
In terms of the schedule, MLS will be sticking with a 34-game slate in 2012, meaning that the league will shift to an unbalanced schedule with the inclusion of the expansion Montreal Impact as the 19th team.
The schedule, which Garber announced would be released as early as either mid-December or January, will reflect an emphasis on regional rivalries, something that should have a positive impact on both attendance and television ratings.
"One of our objectives is to grow the national fanbase and grow our television ratings," Garber said. "Rivalries will help be the fuel to drive that energy, and it's a big part of our strategy. People will see that rivalry focus will be a big part of the new format."
Garber said that adding games is impractical because of the obligations MLS has to other competitions (CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup) and also because of the travel requirements it would add to certain teams.
Vancouver, Garber said, travelled more then 60,000 miles in 2011, while some teams only travelled in the 30,000 range.
"The more games we add, the more travel and impact it has on our players, and therefore reduces the quality of our play," Garber said. "We live here in (North America) and there are certain facts of life we have to manage to."
Continued expansion remains a hot topic in the MLS offices, and with the New York Cosmos going through ownership turmoil and transition, their momentum seems to be waning while other groups, either in New York or elsewhere, look to emerge as contenders for the league's 20th franchise.
"People here in New York know that there are several potential ownership groups, and until we're further along in the process, we're going to speak to as many people as we can, because that's the best way to assure that we'll get an ownership group that will have the resources and be able to make the committments to be good partners in Major League Soccer," Garber said.
Garber said that the Cosmos — whose new owners will be at MLS Cup according to the commissioner — were "never a frontrunner" to become the 20th MLS team and that the main issue remains having a stadium, or plans for a stadium, in place.
"I, for one, believe that the Cosmos are a great brand, and we like the ownership group that's taken over," Garber said. "If they're able to satisfy all the things that we have as ownership requirements, then I think they could be good prospects. Right now it is very focused on a stadium and less focused on ownership."
He added that 2013 is not guaranteed to be the year that the league expands to 20 teams, saying that, "We never targeted any date, ever. … It wasn't something that we ever talked about. We have no timetable for it."
Garber said that he had a meeting scheduled with an ownership group from Florida — not one based in Miami — on Thursday. While Garber didn't specify in which city the group was based, USL club Orlando City tweeted that it was their ownership group that had the meeting.
The commissioner also said that he has met with prospective groups from Las Vegas and Detroit.
"This is less about pushing potential ownership groups as it is trying to work with many markets," Garber said.
Garber also touched on tinkering with the league's playoff format, saying that he would have something to announce regarding the postseason as early as MLS Cup weekend. The league's competition committee, which Garber said is comprised of Clark Hunt, Sunil Gulati, Greg Kerfoot, Adrian Hanauer, Andrew Hauptman, Todd Durbin and Nelson Rodriguez, was slated to meet Thursday for another discussion.
As for how unbalanced the conferences were in terms of results in 2011, Garber said that wouldn't be taken into consideration when determining competition rules.
"That's a factor that exists in the pro sports era in this country every year," Garber said. "It could be that five years from now that the best teams are all in the East. I don't believe that we can adjust our system for how our teams may and may not perform in a given year."
Other highlights from Garber's address included:
- The league is looking at ways to promote attacking soccer, looking at ways to alter the discipline code and is also looking to add a scouting initiative.
- On the topic of referees Garber said that a new approach into managing that aspect was necessary but that also, "Our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for."
- Garber continues to outwardly be upset with the D.C. United stadium situation, considering the lack of progress and the fact that United pays the highest lease out of any team that doesn't own its facility. "There is no doubt in my mind that (RFK Stadium) is a stadium that is substandard for what soccer fans are able to experience in many other markets," Garber said. "We need a solution. I've been pushing Kevin (Payne) and (United owner) Will Chang to find that solution. If that means if they can't get an improved lease in D.C. and they have to move to another place in the region, I'm supportive of that." Garber went on to say that moving the club altogether — using the old San Jose franchise as an example — is also something he would have to look at if things don't change.
- Houston is ahead of schedule on its stadium project, but Montreal is behind schedule in its renovation of Stade Saputo. Garber said that he remains "confident" that the Impact will be able to play half of the season in its new stadium.
- Mark Geiger was named the MLS Referee of the Year, but the league has not yet determined who will be the referee for MLS Cup.
- Regarding David Beckham potentially returning to the league after his contract expires after MLS Cup, Garber said, "I certainly hope to see him back. I don't know that I expect him to be there."
What do you make of Garber's remarks?
Share your thoughts below.