On Tuesday afternoon, from the New York headquarters of Univision, Commissioner Don Garber sat with a roundtable panel of former players, journalists, and broadcasters to discuss where MLS stands and where it's going. The roundtable featured questions from play-by-play Univision commentator Jorge Perez-Navarro, former MLS goalkeeper and SiriusXM host Tony Meola, Canadian international and RDS commentator Patrick Leduc, ESPN writer Doug McIntyre, Fox Sports broadcaster Rob Stone and MLS Social Media Director Amanda Vandervort, who acted as stand-in for fan questions submitted online.
The format for this year's iteration took a bit of a turn from the 2013 version which featured an audience assembled of invited media, fans, and Google Hangout participants lobbing questions at the Commissioner. Instead, the panel solicited questions from fans over the last couple days from avenues like Twitter. This didn't necessarily mean that questions were "soft" as Garber was several times at the end of very difficult questions. But first, Garber took a moment to deliver prepared remarks and announce the MLS Best XI. Here are the highlights from today's address:
So far, television partners have seen an increase in playoff ratings. A special thanks was sent to Thierry Henry and confirmed that he would leave the league altogether (prior to this, there was only confirmation of leaving New York). Expansion markets are being assessed by committee and big announcements regarding when and where should be made in mid-2015. Flex scheduling with TV partners will allow for more narrative-driven matches to replace irrelevant one in the latter half of the year. "Decision Day" will allow for a final day of dramatic, simultaneous matches similar to what is seen in EPL. If scheduling does not permit, Garber would like at least to have in-conference matches take place simultaneously.
BEST XI (3-4-3)
Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (DCU)
Defenders: Bobby Boswell (DCU), Omar Gonzalez (LAG), Chad Marshall (SEA)
Midfielders: Landon Donovan (LAG), Thierry Henry (RBNY), Lee Nguyen (NE), Diego Valeri (POR)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (LAG), Obafemi Martins (SEA), Bradley Wright-Phillips (RBNY)
With that out of the way, the roundtable began their questions. Here are the highlights:
No decision has been made yet but Garber has expressed the desire to have Cubo play in MLS. Shocking, I know.
The league, management, and player union leadership have begun formal negotiations but are still in the early phases of feeling out respective priorities. After a December meeting, the groups will sit down and begin negotiations in earnest amid what Garber called a "positive dynamic". Though "it's never kumbaya," no one is going into the meetings thinking about a potential work stoppage and both sides are doing well to communicate to one another.
The Commissioner cited discussions with the players that MLS is not financially operating in the way they would like as a way for players to recognize how the league works and come to a middleground (though, this should be taken with a grain of salt. In CBA negotiations, the league and ownership will often downplay revenue in order to gain a better negotiating position. See Forbes' profit analysis of MLS clubs which, in 2013, found the majority of teams operating in the black).
There exists a current issue with American players labeled as "domestic" in Canada and Canadian players labeled as "Internationals" in America. Garber addressed this by plainly explaining that "we don't have enough Canadian players that are good enough yet to be able to allow [Canadian] teams to be competitive." Conversely, American labor laws prohibit the league from treating Canadian players different than any other non-American player.
To rectify the situation, MLS has begun working with the Canadian Soccer Association to develop Canadian players so that domestic teams will no longer have to rely on the "domestic" American players. And, while they cannot label Canadian players differently, Garber postulated on offering opportunities to the Canadian player and incentives for teams to sign them.
Though MLS is spending more on academy development than on the whole of MLS salaries a decade ago, young players are still slipping away to European clubs (see Real Salt Lake's Josh Doughty being plucked
by Manchester United). Skirting the issue of player rights (which is likely to be addressed in the CBA), Garber instead discussed the need to develop the best possible academies in the world, having highest-certified coaches, and providing an environment to cultivate and keep young players.
By 2020, MLS will have 24 clubs. Beyond that, however, it will take time to assess the need for further expansion, though Garber hopes to remain with 24 teams for a considerable time. When pressed by Rob Stone about NYCFC being able to shake the Manchester City branding (unlike Chivas USA's mutual identity with Guadalajara), Garber insisted that, aside from the uniform, NYCFC's ownership group has a dedicated and separate plan for MLS.
Miami was a point of contention, though. Garber is not sure what the status is but knows that the team cannot be supported without a stadium in the cultural center of Miami. When pressed about the entrance of NYCFC and LAFC without stadium plans, Garber rebuffed, "It's not an exact science." While LAFC entered with a "stadium solution" and NYCFC came in with a stadium at "agreement-level" terms (that were ultimately dashed), Garber does not believe these expansion decisions should set precedent for how to operate the expansion process in the future. Based partly on the failed experiences of Miami, they know what is needed to operate a team in the market and will not proceed unless those terms are met.
"God bless Brian Straus," Garber said in response to the emerging details
about a league plan to expand the playoff format to 12 teams next season. Admitting that they are examining the possibility, Garber stated that the plan has to be reviewed with the Board of Governors this Saturday before proceeding for implementation. The argument for adding teams centered around long-term thought. As the league hits 24 teams, the qualification rate would better match that of NBA and NHL playoffs so there is a sense that the league will grow into the expanded format over time. Additionally, setting the roadmap now prevents the league from making the oh-so-often changes it has for the last several years.
With regards to the Away-Goal Rule, Garber insists it will continue to be a part of the rules. There is the belief that the games have become more competitive and can attract the larger (more Euro-focused) soccer market. "Nobody can argue with me that our playoffs this year weren't the most exciting games we had in Major League Soccer... That's why we love playoffs."
For Garber, weather issues are insurmountable. Following an amusing reference to "negative zero" weather in Minneapolis, the Commissioner insisted that a full switch to the European calendar cannot be considered unless teams were playing in domed and heated stadiums in frigid markets.
With regard to FIFA International Dates, Garber referred to an ongoing discussion with the Competition Committee about how to handle this. Clearly, it is a frustrating issue to deal with (particularly during the playoffs) but Garber was not able to definitively answer any plans for 2015. To that point, Garber showed his frustration with "meaningless" International call-ups during the climax of the MLS season (and repeatedly referred to Robbie Keane's departure for an Ireland call). The only solution he offered was that he would rather not have those players called up to that low caliber of a match during the MLS season -- a seemingly contradictory position considering the league's commitment to the "Club and Country" campaign.
Switching gears to the All-Star Game, Doug McIntyre proposed the possibility of the Liga MX vs. MLS All-Star Game rather than the current iteration against a European opponent. While Garber sees the appeal, he doesn't believe the schedules of the two leagues would match up and rather likes the "statement" made by beating a European opponent. For him, these games are a competition and not exhibition. This feeling also conflicts with the possibility that a return to the classic East vs. West match could happen.
Interestingly, Garber did acknowledge that the league is developing closer relationships with CONMEBOL and FMF along the lines of official or exhibition tournaments. Citing the now-defunct Superliga as "ahead of its time," Garber see the possibility of bringing back a similar competition to encourage intra-league play.
With a question about allocation money, Leduc wondered if MLS intended to increase their transparency into next season. Garber recognized that some processes are not as easy to understand as they need to be. The Jermaine Jones saga, for example, was unfortunate and Garber listed it as one thing he wished he could take back. Even so, he reinforced the idea that the "random envelope" mechanism was the only way to ensure Jones' signature.
Transparency will be a big priority in 2015, according to Garber, "Most of the public doesn't understand our rules and most of the media doesn't as well." To address this, the league will make publicly available the concepts that are used to handle player transaction, allocations, rights and more once an organization process has underwent.