NEW YORK -- If there is one word to describe Don Garber during his press conference to open the 2013 Major League Soccer, the commissioner was assertive.
In an offseason where FIFA's Sepp Blatter, the world's top soccer boss, called out MLS for failing to make significant progress during its 17 years of existence, it was clear that Garber brought out his boxing gloves to address some of the league's biggest criticisms.
Once again, reiterating MLS's goal of being one of the world's top leagues by 2022, Garber addressed the league's international recruitment progress, its focus on developing young players as well as hopefully keeping them and the troubling television ratings.
While Garber might have came across as stubborn with certain aspects, overall it was refreshing to see the commisioner take a definitive stance as opposed to being safe as in year's past.
Here are some points that stand out, along with my personal assessments of each:
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MLS wants to be the top league in the region and represent CONCACAF in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Garber: "We've got to do better in that tournament [CONCACAF Champions League]. It has to be a priority. It is a goal for Major League Soccer to win the Champions League. If we are going to acheive our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world, we've got to the top league in our region."
Verdict: It all comes down to money. The level of competition determines what stars MLS can attract and the players it can retain. The appeal of playing professionally in America is obvious. If you had your choice between living in Norwich or Chicago, it's pretty obvious where you'd go.
The problem is MLS continues to struggle with its keeping its midrange talent. It's great to see the likes of Thierry Henry and possibly Frank Lampard and Kaka in the league, but in order to see MLS grow, teams have to do a better job of retaining players of Dax McCarty or Kenny Cooper's status. Imagine if the Red Bulls didn't have to decide between both players and could add a big-time summer signing? The team would be on par with several top Liga MX sides.
Garber explained that ultimately salary cap is attached to revenue. Yet, in order to gain significant revenue, there has to be a product on the field that attracts television viewers. As the old adage says, you have to spend money to make it and a $2.95 million cap isn't going to get it done. If MLS's goal is truly to be among the world's best in 2022, it's current 5 percent annual increase of the cap isn't going to work. It doesn't have to be a drastic increase but it has to be a realistic and reasonable amount that allows the teams that are willing to spend to put a better product in the field.
Which brings up another point. Why aren't their stiffer penalties for teams that aren't progressing in the league? There are several franchises that appear to be content in just exisiting and collecting ticket sales (here's looking at you, Chivas). For example, the NFL forces a TV blackout on teams that fail to fill 75 percent of their seats. The NBA routinely pressures teams into figuring out their stadium or spending situations before either relocation or new ownership becomes a reality. MLS should be more definitive for teams who aren't making the effort.
The league's desire to have its 20th team in New York, but sorry no dice for the New York Cosmos
Garber: "They [the New York Cosmos] had a choice to make: Do they want to vie for a New York City MLS team or do they want to go to the second division? They decided to go into the second division and we support that and continue to support the NASL and the USL."
Verdict: Garber was expectedly grilled about MLS's plans for the 20th franchise. Sorry Orlando and Cosmos, MLS is sticking to its desire to have its next team within the five boroughs of New York - likely Flushing Meadows, Queens. Garber called having a second team in New York City the "biggest challenge of his career," but he insisted the economic benefits and marketing opportunities are too hard to pass on. Garber also alluded to a timeline where he would consider alternative cities if NY2 didn't pan out, saying that "three years would be too long," but expects things to be resolved in the next year.
One thing that the commissioner appeared to be very firm on is that the Cosmos aren't a fallback plan for New York's second soccer team. Despite having one of the most iconic brands in American sports and an approval to move forward on a $400 million stadium in Belmont Park, if you don't do it the Soccer Don way, there's a price to pay. Garber painted the team's chances of being an MLS team as very unlikely, his most definitive statements to date.
MLS fans, you are stuck with the playoffs so deal with it
Garber: "We are believers in playoffs, come hell and high water. We believe that having a compelling postseason as our march to the championship is something that will drive more value to our target audiences. We believe with a unbalanced schedule and a big country, it is almost impossible in our view to have a single-table champion."
Verdict: For all of MLS's talk of wanting to increase the level of competition in the league, this is arguably the most contradicting statement made on Wednesday evening.
In the past eight years, only two of the league's Supporter Shield winners have won the MLS Cup. Yes, parity is good but MLS postseason consistently sends the wrong signal of who deserves to be the league's champion. As the Galaxy proved last year, it doesn't matter if you work hard every game, just get into the playoffs and anything is possible. It might make the playoffs more exciting, but at what cost? If players are slowing down in certain games to stay fresh for when the games really count, how does that help prepare players for the United States national team, for example? In Europe, every game counts and that is the reason why players are more prepared for pressure situations in major international tournaments.
One possible idea could be to switch to a single elimination format for the postseason. That way the teams who have performed strongly during the regular season are rewarded with home field advantage.
Younger DPs are a priority
Garber: "We wanted Brek [Shea] to stay in the league and I think it would have good in our opinion for Brek's career development. Brek believed that it would be better for him play for Stoke. He had his first [appearance] just a week ago and we hope it is good for his career. We live in this world where we've got to satisfy the league's needs but also satisfy the players' needs. That's part of the dynamic of professional soccer."
"I will say that far more players come in and far fewer players leave than I think the public and the media understand."
Verdict: All of the questions revolving around Shea circle around a bigger issue: Where's the next American star for MLS? There's Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, Omar Gonzalez and then... crickets. What's even more concerning is on the attacking front, the part of the game that sells tickets, both Donovan and Wondolowski are on the wrong side of 30.
No one has been overly critical of the departures of Fredy Montero and Andy Najar, two standout stars in their own right, but the loss of Shea stings for most American fans of MLS. With Donovan pondering retirement, he was the ready made star who could have replaced him. Now the league will have to scramble to retain the services of Juan Agudelo, who almost became a Celtic player in January.
One area where Garber and MLS deserves credit is the incoming quality of the league's international arrivals. Who would have thought that either Nigel Reo Coker or Obafemi Martins would join MLS at only 28 years old? It is a sign that the league is becoming attractive to talented players in their prime.
TV ratings are an issue but not a concern
Garber: "Media and others look at [the low ratings] perhaps more than broadcasters and the league do. That being said, you need to grow, grow your audience and one of the measures of that growth is on television."
Verdict: Garber tried to downplay MLS's TV ratings issue on Wednesday, pointing to potential deals in 2014 and the league's strong relationship with ESPN. It all sounds nice and well but the paltry national ratings for MLS means that the league likely can't rely on TV deals for significant revenue, which is essential for all successful sports leagues. Imagine the Premier League or the NFL without the billions generated from TV dollars. Neither league would be able to provide the high salaries to the Peyton Mannings and Wayne Rooneys of the world.
In fact, I'd make the argument that the TV issue, not adding a second team in New York, is the biggest challenge that Garber will face during the next decade. There is definitely an interest in soccer in America but until that interest finds its way to MLS, the league won't find its footing as one of the world's top leagues.