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.