MLS commissioner Don Garber offered up his annual State of the League address during a conference call on Thursday afternoon.
Garber touched on several issues as part of his hour-long question-and-answer session with reporters. The Friday Five culled through the discussion and picked out a few salient points to discuss in more detail:
1. Prepare for an imbalanced schedule next season: Instead of increasing the schedule to 36 matches when Montreal joins the league next season, the league will opt for a 34-game imbalanced schedule that will presumably cut down on travel time (and costs) and increase the number of matches between local rivals. The competition committee is close to hammering out on the specific details and the league hopes to have an announcement shortly, according to Garber.
The idea isn't particularly popular among diehard fans accustomed to a balanced schedule in major European leagues, but Garber said he believes MLS must adapt to its circumstances in this particular instance.
“To me, it's simple math,” Garber said. “Thirty-eight games (with 20 teams) would be almost impossible for us to execute with the other competitions we're required to play, the weather issues that we have, the stadium availability challenges we have in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates and all of the things we have to do differently in the United States that the leagues have to abide by elsewhere in the world.”
2. Expect the playoff format to change as well: Garber mounted a defense of the way this compressed postseason slate has played out over the past few weeks, but he admitted that the competition committee will evaluate different options for next season for next season. Do not, however, expect the latest revision to the playoff structure to wipe away the conference system or compensate for the relative strength of the Western Conference over the past couple of seasons (an occurrence Garber said he does not see as a problem).
3. MLS plans a “real deep dive” into officiating during the offseason: In an attempt to improve the standard of officiating, MLS plans to work with U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association to devise a new approach to managing referees in the future. Despite the league's willingness to reassess the current practices in this department, Garber mounted a passionate – and somewhat inflammatory, given his specific comments about the quality of MLS players – defense of the referees currently working in the league.
“Our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for,” Garber said. “I think a lot of this is perception versus reality. I think the gap between our players and, perhaps, those playing at the world class level is a wider gap than the difference between our officials and those who are officiating in places like the Premier League. I just think it's an evolutionary process for everyone associated with our game to really understand that.”
4. D.C. United's stadium issues continue to concern and frustrate Garber: Potential stadium projects in New York and Washington prompted several questions during the conference call. While the wranglings in New York remain associated with locating the proper stadium site for a potential expansion side, the District's reluctance to provide public funds as part of a stadium solution in Washington creates a more imminent concern for United.
“We have to aggressively figure a solution out,” Garber said. “That solution needs to be figured out soon. I am concerned about what and where this team will be in 2012. They've been operating this season without a lease. They have been in discussions on a lease to try to improve their terms. I'm shocked to say that I believe they could be paying more for their lease at RFK than any other team we have in the league. There's no doubt in my mind that it is a stadium that is substandard to what soccer fans are able to experience in many other markets in the United States and Canada.”
The instant focus remains on improving the lease terms at RFK Stadium. Eventually, the club must find a new, permanent home for the club. Although Garber later backtracked somewhat when asked a follow-up question on the topic, he admitted that the league will assess all potential options if the status quo continues over the next couple of years.
“We need a solution and I've been pushing Kevin (Payne) and Will Chang to find that solution,” Garber said. “If that means that they can't get an improved lease in D.C., then they've got to move to another facility in the region. And I'll be supportive of that and will help them do that. If it means they can't find a solution in Baltimore, then we'll have to go through a process as we did with San Jose to think about potentially moving the team.”
5. Don't expect New England's executive reshuffle to diminish Sunil Gulati's role in league circles: U.S. Soccer president Gulati gave up his job as Revolution president and moved into a role as a special advisor to the Kraft Group and the Kraft family on Wednesday, but the shift won't diminish his influence within league circles or see him give up his role on the competition committee, according to Garber.
“Sunil is a very, very close advisor to me on a personal and a professional level,” Garber said. “I spend more time with him than I probably do with members of my own staff because we travel so much together. He will remain on the (Board of Governors) should the Krafts opt to have him serve in that alternate governor seat, which he does right now. He will be a member of our competition committee. I think Sunil's contributions to the league and to the board have been invaluable. Clearly, the Revolution have opted to focus on Brian (Bilello, Revolution president) as a day-to-day manager for the club, but I'm fortunate that I still get a lot of Sunil's support and a lot of time for him to continue to help us grow this league.”Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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