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Don Garber and the Chase for a Moment

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A "moment" has several definitions but for our purposes, we'll go with this one: a time of excellence or conspicuousness.

Sports are defined by moments, single plays that often take only a matter of seconds to occur that live forever in the mind's eye of those who witnessed them and are passed along to new fans as talasmanic stories that help define a sport to new fans.

June 23rd, 2010 gave us a moment.

No matter how you felt about Landon Donovan before the 91st minute of the USA's World Cup match against Algeria, that single moment when the ball deflected off the goalkeeper to a charging Donovan forever changed how you felt about him.

For all the things that Donovan has accomplished so far, that moment will forever be linked with him and forever have a place in the minds and hearts of American soccer fans. It's been just over six months and I still get chills and goosebumps when I watch the replay of that goal. That is the definition of a moment. In that split second new fans were created, casual fans were hooked for life and long time fans were reminded why the love the beautiful game. 

More importantly, that moment couldn't be planned out or expected, it just happened that way.

MLS commissioner Don Garber loves to talk about "moments" and about the need for his league to have moments that define players, teams and fans alike. He and others involved with the operation of the league desperately try to create opportunities for these defining moments to occur, yet try as they might they just aren't happening.

This isn't a knock against MLS, it's a simple statement of can't create a moment. You can't force something to be impactful to fans, it just has to happen organically. Garber often defends the continued reliance on the Conference structure in MLS because of the need for moments like the Rapids lifting the Eastern Conference Championship trophy in Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Sure, there was a great crowd and Rapids fans will remember that night on the road to their eventual MLS Cup victory, but it is a real moment? Will Rapids fans look back at videos of that and get a chill down their spine or even get tears in their eyes?

I'm not discounting the Rapids achievement but Donovan's goal versus Algeria was a defining moment, the Rapids were holding up a trophy from the other conference. NFL fans don't cherish the memory of their team holding up a Conference Championship trophy, they remember the moment their players lift the Lombardi Trophy. While the Rapids victory was something to celebrate, it was highly confusing to a casual fan and to anyone who didn't have a rooting interest, it felt manufactured and forced.

Therein lies Garber's vexing problem when it comes to moments in MLS. He's trying to hard, simple as that. You can't go around telling people you want moments and then continually point to examples you believe are moments. They just have to happen and you don't always get to like them either.

Donald Stern of the NBA would love to erase the memory of the infamous brawl in Detroit when players entered the stands and all hell broke loose, but he can't and it's a moment. Any league executive would prefer only the uplifting and positive events to become moments but that's not how it works. You also can't set the table for your moments. How many times did TV networks attempt to sell the matches between the old "Big Four" of the EPL as "epic matches", only to be given 90 minutes of dreadfully boring soccer?

There is nothing at all wrong with Garber chasing these moments and trying to use them to build interest in the league, but you can't force these things Don. It has to be natural, it has to be spontaneous and it requires not only a brilliant performance by a player or team but for all the intangibles as well to work. 

If Dave O'Brien is calling that Donovan's goal instead of Ian Darke, it's still a hell of a moment but it's probably lacking that extra bit of magic. ESPN couldn't of planned that, it just happened that way. Unforced and unscripted.

Keep chasing those moments Don but stop trying to sell people on their essential importance. Sports fans aren't as dumb or gullible as you might believe. We can tell the difference between experiencing a moment for ourselves and a suit trying to sell on us what they believe is a moment we should remember.

Moments for MLS will come, but it takes time. Tinkering with conferences, playoff structure and anything else you think could possibly help to manufacture moments is shortsighted and counter productive. The MLS can adapt and grow but it must be at its core, recognizable and consistent. 

We knew what Donovan's goal meant the US Men's National Team, we understood the weight of it because the system is clear and understandable. It's hard to define meaning when a Western Conference team hoist the Eastern Conference trophy.