Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
It is no secret that MLS is continuously growing as a league, but if you needed any reminder, Don Garber likely provided it on Monday.
Five days before the MLS Cup final is to be played, Garber held his state-of-the-league address to discuss a wide variety of matters with reporters. The near 90-minute conference call was a record long for MLS, and in it Garber touched on hot topics like David Beckham’s impending departure, MLS expansion and the uncertainty surrounding Landon Donovan’s future.
Beckham leaving the league after six seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy was one of the first things Garber spoke at length about, saying that the star’s arrival was key in helping MLS mature and that another player similar to him will join the league in the future.
“We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity and to show the world, really, that the United States was ready to support a division one league at the levels that it could be supported around the world,” said Garber. “We don’t need anything today to get us to the next level. It’s a wide variety of initiatives, from player development to continued investment in our overall player player pool to better and more focused marketing to smart expansion to a transformation into a digital world where games are even more available than they are today, etc.
“I believe moving forward there will be another player that will surprise the soccer world like David surprised the world when he agreed to come to Major League Soccer. I don’t know who that player will be, but it will probably be one of the great players that’s playing in Europe today.”
Asked about the option in Beckham’s MLS contract that will allow the midfielder to purchase a future expansion franchise, Garber said that Beckham can transfer that option into an opportunity to join the Galaxy’s ownership group. The only thing Beckham cannot do with it is buy into a New York team.
“Anything’s a possibility other than his right to exercise that option in New York. To show you how important New York expansion is, we’re going to sidetrack here: Major League Soccer has been looking at the possibility of expanding in New York since the league was founded in 1996.
“There was a concept of having two teams in the league way back then. We knew when we were speaking to David that eventually we would have an opportunity in New York, regardless of the role that David played in helping grow the popularity of the league.”
Still, MLS remains focused on making its next expansion team a New York-based side that will play in Queens in a soccer-specific stadium by 2016.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land and our ability to lease that land to build a stadium,” said Garber. “I do believe that we will resolve that shortly. I can’t put any timetable on that, but we are at the finish line.
“Once we are there, we have to go to a formal approval process that all developers have to go through in New York City. That will take some time. We need to reach an agreement with the city, the local community and the state of New York on replacing the land that we would be using for the stadium approximately 10 acres of land.”
Garber also touched on the stadium situations of D.C. United and the New England Revolution, two of the league’s older franchises who are seeking new homes to play in. Garber started by showing optimism in United’s search for a soccer-specific stadium, saying that the new owners’ deeper pockets were part of the reason why there’s ‘new momentum’ on that front in the nation’s capital.
“There seems to be a more focused approach with [United co-owner] Jason Levien and the local government, but also with local developers who have access to land,” said Garber. “Both Mark Abbott and I have been in discussions over the last week with the holder of that land.
“I think Jason and his partner, Erick Thohir, along with Will [Chang's] continued involvement have the capacity to put more private equity into a deal. That makes the opportunity far more viable during these economic times.”
Things are not looking as rosy for the Revolution and their owners, the Kraft family. The Revolution are hoping to build a soccer-specific stadium in the downtown Boston area, but not much progress has been made in that aspect.
In fact, the Revolution are looking for some help in order to try and get a stadium deal done.
“We are looking for public support up in that area just because of just the cost of developing a project there,” said Garber. “They were here in the office two weeks ago giving us an update, and it’s fair to say that though there’s nothing new to report, the family is still very focused on it.”
One other subject Garber touched on was the status of Donovan, who is uncertain as to whether he will continue his professional career following Saturday’s MLS Cup final. Donovan has admitted in recent months that he has lost some of the passion for the game after spending so many years playing and promoting soccer in the United States.
“I hope to spend a little time with Landon,” said Garber. “I don’t think anybody who loves this game and is connected to U.S. Soccer or Major League Soccer doesn’t fully appreciate what contributions Landon has had on our sport in this country. He’s arguably the best player in U.S. Soccer history.
“He started as a teenager and has spent his entire life committed to the sport. I sympathize with what he is experience in trying to soul search figure what his future might hold, on and off the field. I think unfortunately for Landon, even more so than the [Michael] Jordans and [Wayne] Gretzkys of the world or [Lionel]Messis, frankly, is that he not only had to be a great player. But he also had to carry a lot of the promotional burden of growing the sport for a decade or more on his shoulders. He played during the day and had to promote it at night, and that’s tiring.
“I hope he can continue to help grow the league and the sport here and I want to do everything I can personally to help him figure out a right way to be able to do that.”
Other notes from the call:
- The 2013 MLS season will begin on March 2 for its earliest start ever and the regular season and playoff formats will remain as they were in 2012.
- It is unlikely that there is an increase number of Designated Players allowed per team in the near future.
- Developing young talent continues to be a top priority for the league and Garber said MLS currently spends approximately ‘$20 million a year’ on that front.
- MLS continues to be intrigued by the Miami market and think it is evolving, though it still needs to grow further before a team can return there.
- MLS will continue to monitor the progress of Orlando City and if the club can finalize a stadium plan, the league would be ‘very interested in working with them on an MLS team.’