Q&A with MLS' Don Garber
Garber isn't worried about the new designated player rule creating imbalance
Any decision on Landon Donovan's future will be made solely by the Galaxy
Garber attributes problems with the league's official Web site on a faulty code
Major League Soccer has just kicked off its 15th season as America's top-flight soccer league -- and its 12th with former NFL executive Don Garber as the league's commissioner. Now that MLS has achieved labor peace with its players, agreeing on a new collective bargaining agreement to avert a strike, I sat down with Garber in his New York City office last week and had a wide-ranging conversation about what lies ahead.
Garber discussed a number of topics, including the new designated player rule, the World Cup, why he's working right now without a contract and Landon Donovan's future in the league. The commissioner also gave his first public comments about the disastrous launch of MLS's new league-run Web site and asked a provocative question: Is U.S. coach Bob Bradley biased against MLS players when making selections for the national team? Here is our conversation (edited for clarity):
SI.com: Now that the season has started and the new collective bargaining agreement is done, what's at the top of your priority list as the commissioner?
Garber: This is the beginning of a new era for Major League Soccer. It starts with what I believe is a more positive and productive relationship with our players that I think will lead to a better understanding of their needs, but also a mutual understanding and acceptance as to where MLS is and what we need to do together to build the league. The key priorities are very simple. It's ensuring that we are launching Philadelphia well and creating the same excitement and opportunity that exists in Toronto and Seattle. It's working closely with Vancouver and Portland to help them have a successful launch [in 2011]. It's finally having a bit of a bounce in the New York metropolitan area and ensuring that the Red Bulls can keep up the momentum they've had over the last couple weeks and continue to position Red Bull Arena as the crown jewel of stadiums its size in the world.
Our biggest marketing priority is to capitalize on the World Cup, both at the local level and league level, and working with our marketing partners and ESPN. And it's fair to say the continued management of the launch of MLSsoccer.com and getting more deeply engaged in the digital universe, connecting our fans to our Web site and to other applications that will come that will hopefully deliver value to them and create a business opportunity for us.
SI.com: The New York Red Bulls have an impressive new stadium and their success on the field is one of the stories of the season so far in the league. Is there any chance this club is finally getting things right?
Garber: I have said from the beginning that our fans need to give the Red Bulls a chance to find their way and to fully understand the MLS system. [Owner] Dietrich Mateschitz bought into the system and believes in it, but it's clearly more different for them than it would be for most of our other teams. The fact they have hired [Red Bull global sporting director] Dietmar Beiersdorfer, who is an experienced guy who's played the game, who's managed clubs in Europe, is a positive development. [General manager and sporting director] Erik Soler, who's been an active participant at our board level and is very bright, has been a player, an agent and a team owner. That's another positive development. Erik Stover, their managing director, is experienced, bright, focused. His head's down and he's trying to do everything he can to ensure that the team launches well from a business perspective.
The Red Bulls have created a formula that I believe will be more successful than any formula that's existed in the past. I am cautiously optimistic that we're really going to have a terrific, well-connected, successful team finally in the New York metropolitan area. Our fans would be surprised how much they think about the game, how much they understand the game, how focused they are on the game first, from the type of stadium they built, to their grass surface, to how they're marketing and presenting themselves, to how they're training, to how they're connecting in the community. This could turn out to be a very good model not just for them but potentially for other teams.
SI.com: The new designated player rule makes it easier for teams to sign big-name players for this league. There are six DPs in the league right now. How many do you think will be added right after the World Cup?
Garber: I can't put a number on that. I do believe that making it easier for clubs to sign DPs, both in terms of access to greater numbers and a lower charge against the salary budget, should be an incentive for more clubs to sign players. That's the goal of the rule change. But it needs to make sense. I thought [New England Revolution owner] Jonathan Kraft had some great comments in the Boston Globe. It needs to be the right place at the right time, connected properly in the community so that ultimately that player can drive quality on the field and create business value off the field. There aren't many players who can do that. We've had some great successes in David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel, and we struggled with some other decisions that have been made. That's part of the dynamic of sports and that's why it's exciting, but I do still believe while there's more opportunity and more incentive, I am encouraging our owners to continue to be careful when they make these decisions.
SI.com: What are the chances that we see Thierry Henry in a New York Red Bulls jersey this season?
Garber: Listen, who could not love Thierry Henry and be excited about his passion for this country and his desire to someday play in our league? He is under contract today and it would be totally inappropriate for me to make any comments about what his future might be while he's still playing for a club [Barcelona] that I not only admire but am a fan and business partner of.
SI.com: Do you have any concerns about the new DP rule, that perhaps it increases the gap between the large- and small-market teams in MLS?
Garber: There are still restrictions, though. It's so early, but the beauty of the MLS single entity, which is why we fought and will continue to fight to keep it in place, is because you can create these rules and see how they work and adjust those rules if they don't, as opposed to having other forces drive you down a path that can lead you to disaster. So if we see that we created too much imbalance with this rule, we very simply cut it back. And that's not a decision one owner makes, it's a decision the collective makes. This whole dynamic is difficult to understand for our players and fans. We understand that, and we know why it is here today. At some point you've got to take responsibility and say, "Trust me." Our results have proven to be true, and we're here against all odds.
SI.com: There's a good chance this summer that European clubs will be wanting to make offers on Landon Donovan. How do you view that, and what price will you set on him?
Garber: With our new rules that's a decision that [Los Angeles executives] Tim Leiweke, Bruce Arena and AEG would make, not the league. The league has to approve it, but we're in a world today where since the vast majority of the transfer revenue goes back to the local club, that's their decision. We collectively have made a huge commitment to Landon. He is in many ways the poster boy for our league and the icon of American soccer. To have him in our league is extremely important, not just because of the quality of his play. Landon as well took a great last-minute leadership role in the CBA discussions. I think we're starting to see a guy that's not just performing as a leader on the field but has the capability to go to even higher levels off the field. I believe he's tremendously valuable to us, and I hope he's in this league until he retires.
SI.com: The World Cup is this summer, and there will be fewer MLS players on World Cup rosters, including the U.S. roster. Granted, a lot of the U.S. players got their starts in MLS before they went to Europe. Are you bothered at all that there aren't more World Cup players in your league?
Garber: It's very interesting. In our [CBA] discussions with the players in Washington, D.C., during some of our breaks we talked about that, and many of those players, particularly the leaders and veteran American players, believe they are as good as many of the players who are picked from overseas to play for the national team. So do I think there is a potential bias? I can't answer that. I've got a lot of respect for and would consider myself a friend of [U.S. coach] Bob Bradley. But today clearly there is an emphasis for him to pick players from Europe, and that's something that he believes will give him the best team on the field. I think many of our coaches and certainly we would feel there are many players in our league that can perform at the same level as some of the players he is selecting.