Garber’s State of the League Address: Expansion, Beckham’s Buy-In Option, and Donovan’s Future

On Monday, five days before the 2012 MLS championship game, commissioner Don Garber gave his annual “state of the league” address, covering a wide range of topics in a 90-minute conference call with national media.

The Soccer Don discussed the imminent departure of David Beckham, and talked about how much different the league is now compared to when Golden Balls arrived in 2007. “We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity,” the commish said. “We don’t need anything today to get us to the next level. It’s a wide variety of initiatives.”

When Beckham met the media under a cascade of glittery confetti at the Home Depot Center in July 2007, MLS had 13 teams, five soccer-specific stadiums and a threadbare TV deal.

Today, the league has 19 teams, 13 soccer-specific stadiums (with two more on the horizon) and broadcast agreements with ESPN, NBC, TSN and Univision. (Fox Soccer also televises CONCACAF Champions League games involving MLS sides).

The league set records for average attendance and number of sellouts this season, and surpassed the NHL and NBA in per-game attendance last season.

As for Garber’s “wide variety of initiatives,” some of the highlights:

On expansion, in New York:

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land [in Queens] and our ability to lease that land to build a stadium. I do believe that we will resolve that shortly. I can’t put any timetable on that, but we are at the finish line.”

The league’s goal is to have a stadium and franchise in Queens ready to join the league by the 2016 season.

On expansion elsewhere:

We’ll continue to monitor what’s happening down there [with USL club Orlando City and its owner, Phil Rawlins] and I think at some point, if they’re able to finalize a stadium plan that makes sense, we’d be very interested in working with them on an MLS team.”

Garber also said MLS suitors Atlanta and Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Falcons, would be taken seriously if they could sort out stadium possibilities, and the commish mentioned that a return to Miami would “make sense” at some point.

On Beckham’s franchise buy-in option:

“Anything’s a possibility other than his right to exercise that option in New York. So there is a possibility for him to work with the league office to find ways to transfer that option into an opportunity in LA. It’s way too premature to talk about that or even speculate about what that would look like. But that opportunity does exist if it meets the approval of the league. …David holds the option and the LA Galaxy would have to be part of that discussion.”

Beckham has a contractual option to buy an MLS franchise for a reported $25 million. The Montreal Impact joined the league in 2010 for $40 million.

On youth development:

“[The league] will continue to invest massive amounts of money” in player development, and “we’re working on ways to have a more comprehensive reserve league. Part of it could be a closer relationship with the second division [the NASL] and giving those players opportunities to get minutes. Part of it could be incentivizing our teams to provide playing opportunities for those players on their first team.”

MLS currently spends $20 million a year on player development, and the reserve league stages 10 games per season.

On Landon Donovan and his uncertain future:

“I hope to spend a little time with Landon. 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 made to 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 experiencing in trying to soul search and figure out what his future might hold, on and off the field.

“… 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.”

In that same passage, Garber likened LD to Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Lionel Messi. He understands how important Donovan, the poster boy for U.S. Soccer, is to MLS.

All in all, though, it’s a fairly rosy picture for the league. Apart from TV ratings (which need to be goosed), and problems with Chivas USA (stagnant team, overshadowed by the Galaxy), Toronto (no continuity and no postseason play in six years as a franchise), New England (need a proper stadium) and D.C. (ditto), the news is all good.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber Talks Business with Forbes

The Soccer Don sat down with Forbes reporter Fred Dreier yesterday for a chat about the state of the league as Year 17 lifts off.

They covered expansion, marketing, Beckham, and the recent deal with Providence Equity Partners, a private equity firm that acquired 25% of Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, for a reported $125 to $150 million.

Take a look:

At one point Garber alludes to the league, and the commissioner, after he has left the job. We don’t know who that commissioner will be, obviously, but, considering the enormous growth of MLS under Garber, whoever it is will have a tough act to follow.

MLS Lands Three-Year Broadcast Deal with NBC

This is shaping up to be a massive news day, and the BP World HQ are all a-scramble. In addition to the news out of Montreal and from England, the Jurgen Klinsmann Era gets under way tonight, there is movement on the Freddy Adu front (more on that later), and there’s this: Major League Soccer and NBC Sports announced a three-year contract, starting with the 2012 MLS season, to broadcast MLS games on NBC and NBC Sports Network.

(The NBC Sports Network is Versus, re-branded, so if you have Versus, you have NBCSN).

The deal will put 45 MLS games and four U.S. men’s national team matches on NBC and NBC Sports Network each season. (ESPN will continue to broadcast its MLS Game of the Week until 2014.)

Here’s the commish:

“Our new partnership with the NBC Sports Group is a significant step forward for Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer. The NBC Sports Group is world-renowned for its award-winning coverage, superb broadcast quality, and promotional expertise. We are excited to be part of NBC’s ambitious plans for soccer, and look forward to reaching a considerable audience on multiple platforms.”

For more on this, see here and here.

MLS Sees 60 Cards—Eight of them Red—In NHL-Style Week 4

After opening his column this morning with a nice account of how U.S.-based coaches Thomas Rongen, Bruce Arena, and Steve Nicol behaved like stand-up guys in the wake of recent losses, veteran Soccer America scribe Paul Gardner moves on to bemoan the “physical” style of MLS.

He writes that commissioner Don Garber’s preseason mandate for referees to protect skill players and encourage attacking soccer is not being adhered to:

“Even though I am in total agreement with what Garber is seeking–a more attack-oriented, goalscoring game–I remarked at the time that it would be difficult to get the referees to comply. And so far–17 games into the season–I’ve seen absolutely no convincing evidence of any change in referees’ attitudes.”

The odd thing about this—apart from it being entirely incorrect, down to the number of games played so far this season—is that Gardner clearly watched some MLS games this weekend.

From that experience, he should have noticed that referees have indeed changed their attitudes: Two weeks after issuing 40 cards in a weekend, they doled out 60 this time around, eight of them red.

They handed a penalty to D.C. striker Charlie Davies after he made a decisive move in the box and got a whisper of contact from L.A. defender Omar Gonzalez. They’re even dutifully using the spray paint to mark ten yards from the ball on free kicks, and making teams’ walls stay there, to the benefit of would-be goal-scorers. (They’re also the only refs—on the planet—currently using the spray paint, so far as we know.)

In short, they’re following Garber’s mandate pretty much to the letter. It’s the players who must now adjust to get the game closer to where the commish, and most fans, want it.

Click here to read our entire recap of a very edgy Week 4 in MLS.

MLS Commish: “Donovan Not for Sale” Lalas: “Really, Don?”

Speaking after Thierry Henry’s press conference yesterday, MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters that the league would not entertain any transfer offers for LA Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan.

“He’s become a real soccer hero,” Garber said. “MLS needs soccer heroes, and we have a great American soccer hero playing for us in LA, holding the torch for the sport in our country, and that’s very important. I don’t believe that it’s something we can do without.”

It makes sense—Donovan’s Q rating and value to MLS have never been higher.

But is it also, at least in part, just an early negotiating ploy?

Alexi Lalas seems to think so. Last night on ESPN, during halftime of the D.C. United-Seattle game, the former Galaxy GM commented on Garber’s statement, saying, “No player is ‘not for sale.’” Lalas went on to suggest that, for the right price, even the most untouchable players can move in the transfer market.

“I don’t doubt the fact that commissioner Garber and everyone recognizes his importance to the league and to the Galaxy, but if there was ever a moment for him to be sold, this is it,” Lalas said.

Surely Garber and Co. are well aware of the fact that MLS will never get a better offer for Donovan than they would right now. So what is the magic number that would transform them into sellers?

The largest transfer fee ever paid for an MLS player is the $10 million that Villarreal shelled out to acquire Jozy Altidore from the Red Bulls in 2008.

How much higher would a team have to go to get Donovan? Answer: A lot. And how many teams are going to bid as high as MLS will want for the midfielder, who, while an excellent player, is not an international superstar, and is not that young, at 28? Answer: Not a lot.

There’s also the question of what Donovan wants to do. Recent reports have suggested that he’s reconciling with his ex, Bianca Kajlich, an actress who makes her living in LA. So the question could be moot if he’s content in LA.

But if an offer he liked came through, would the league pull a Taylor Twellman on him and effectively block a deal by demanding too much?

MLS wants to get the right price for its marquee player, but it should also want to avoid keeping him in the league against his will.

The transfer window opened yesterday, and runs until August 14th. Stay tuned.