All signs point upwards for MLS (cont.)
SI.com: Is there any chance of U.S. national team players who are out of contract like Jay DeMerit or DaMarcus Beasley coming to MLS?
Garber: Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. It's always been our goal, but we're becoming more public in stating our long-term vision. Had we talked about what we wanted to be when the league was founded, particularly when we had the challenges that we did, it would have raised some skepticism. But now that the league is growing, earning more respect and having more players coming into the league from the domestic and international ranks, we have a goal in sight. We'll know we've achieved that goal when the majority of the best American players are here and we have a great number of world-class players that are here both in their prime but also in the latter part of their careers.
That may or may not fit with that question, but it's important that we're coming out now to start saying it. I don't quite get the intrigue with "Americans Abroad." I don't understand why people are so infatuated with the fact there are American players playing overseas. If they were playing at the highest level, similar to what's happening with Mexicans playing for Arsenal and Manchester United, when we get to that point I think it would be great for everything that we need to achieve with American soccer. We need a player playing at the highest level and being a star internationally. Until that happens, for me as the commissioner it hurts when a player leaves Major League Soccer and goes to play in another league. And while most people would disagree with this statement, I'm not even convinced it's better for their development.
SI.com: Really? Why?
Garber: There's no doubt they make more money, but there's still a question as to whether or not a player who is not playing full-time on a team in Scandinavia is going to develop his game better than he could develop it in MLS. I think it should be a priority for us to get some of the star Americans who are playing overseas to come back and play in MLS, the same as we did in 1996. At some point our clubs will start looking at that. I don't believe it will happen while there's still a fairly large disparity between what we can pay those players and what they're able to earn overseas. But we clearly need to get to the point where that decision is less about money and more about what they believe is best for their career and their own development.
SI.com: You recently indicated that Landon Donovan is not for sale. There has to be a a transfer offer that you couldn't refuse from a team if it really wanted Donovan, right?
Garber: Let me be very clear: Landon Donovan is perhaps the most important American player in the history of the game, and never has he been more important now that he has become a real breakthrough personality. Ultimately the decision as to whether Landon plays for the Galaxy or asks to be transferred is a decision between Landon, his family and the Galaxy. It's not a decision made by the commissioner of the league. But I will say emphatically that I hope Landon stays in MLS and continues to help us grow this league.
SI.com: Have you received any offers for Donovan recently?
Garber: There has not been an offer made for Landon Donovan since the World Cup.
SI.com: Which city will get a soccer stadium first: San Jose, D.C., New England or Seattle?
Garber: I don't believe Seattle is in the market for a soccer stadium. You can't ask for a better situation than the one we have at Qwest Field. It's a terrific partnership between the Seahawks and the Sounders. Clearly we're trying hard to get stadiums built in San Jose, D.C. and New England, and the owners have their own timetables to do so. I can't handicap which one will get there first, but we've been pretty successful over the last dozen or so years getting stadiums built, and I'm confident we will in time be successful in all those markets.
SI.com: MLS has made some solid choices recently with expansion: Seattle, Toronto, Philadelphia, with Portland and Vancouver coming in next year and Montreal as the 19th team in 2012. What comes after that?
Garber: If we could write the book, the next chapter would be a second team in New York. We're working hard to achieve that. We've been spending time talking to potential investors, doing a lot of planning to figure out how to make the economics work. The Red Bulls have been very supportive of having a hometown rival. I hope our 20th team is in New York City. We've got a lot of work to do to achieve that.
SI.com: Would it be in Brooklyn, Queens or somewhere else?
Garber: We're looking at a number of different sites, sites in Queens for the most part, and not just at Shea but Long Island City and Flushing Meadow Park. So we have three particular sites we're looking at. But we have a lot of work to do to get something done. It's a very difficult market, very crowded.
SI.com: What year would you be hoping to start that team?
Garber: It certainly wouldn't be any earlier than 2013, and we're racing up against a deadline to get it done by '13. In order to get it done by 2013 we've got to get something done in the next 12 months.
SI.com: Where do Atlanta and Florida and the Southeast fit in for expansion then?
Garber: Beyond New York, Atlanta is still very engaged and started a committee to support the sport at a wide variety of levels. San Diego has just entered the mix. The man who bought the Silverdome in Detroit has been in discussions with us. I get probably 10 to 20 e-mails a day from fans in Miami trying to have us pay attention to their interest. I believe strongly that we need to be south of Washington D.C. in order for us truly to be a national league. But like everything with us, we're not going to do it just to round out the map. We'll do it when we have the right owner, the right stadium, when we have a sense the fans will support it and it will be a success like our other recent expansion teams.
SI.com: How long would MLS want to stay at 20 teams?
Garber: I don't know the answer to that. We'll tackle that when we finalize the 20th team.
SI.com: The MLS television contract with Fox Soccer Channel runs out at the end of this season. What are the chances of it being renewed, and is a channel like Versus an option?
Garber: I have great respect for the Fox Soccer Channel. It has been one of the drivers of the growth of the sport in this country. David Hill, who is the man responsible for Fox Sports, has just taken responsibility for the network. He's hired a guy named David Nathanson, who's a very seasoned cable executive, to run Fox Soccer Channel. I'm confident we'll be able to sit down together and hopefully finalize a new deal that will get us hopefully more programming, a better schedule, more promotion and without a doubt we hope more money. They're here in Houston. We'll talk to them this week. I've told them we'll continue to meet with Versus. That doesn't necessarily mean it is to the exclusion of FSC, but to be responsible to our owners we need to continue to go out and investigate other programming partnerships. I have tremendous respect for what [Versus] has done for the NHL and believe their interest in soccer, which continues to grow, is a good thing for the sport overall, whether that's for MLS or some of our other SUM properties.
SI.com: What's the status of MLS's other TV contracts?
Garber: ESPN and Univisión are through 2014.
SI.com: You've told me in the past that soccer should have some sort of improved technology to help with officiating. In the wake of the officiating controversies at the World Cup, would you lobby FIFA to let MLS be a testing ground for goal-line technology, instant replay or additional officials on the field?
Garber: Years ago when FIFA would test certain rule changes they would reach out to second- and third-tier leagues and then call us at the same time. We didn't believe we were in the same category as some of these leagues, and it didn't make sense for us to be participating in those programs. Today I would be very interested in working with FIFA in any way they felt necessary to test either technology or any other changes they would be interested in looking at as it relates to officiating. I think our fans are more conditioned to officiating innovation because of the things that happen other major leagues here. They're asking for it, and I believe it would be a positive for us to test out some options.
We're certainly not lobbying FIFA at this point, but I've let [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati know that if there's anything that the federation, as the manager of our officials, is interested in doing, we're open. That goes from technology to extra officials to anything else. I do believe that officiating needs to get better, and I think American fans are conditioned to having the right result happen on the field. The concept of the intrigue and controversy around officiating doesn't quite resonate with the American fan as it might with others around the world.
SI.com: CONCACAF Champions League games begin this week. No MLS team has won that trophy since 2000, and to this day no MLS team has ever won a competitive game in Mexico. How important is it to MLS for those things to change?
Garber: Incredibly important. One of the challenges with the Champions League is that in March our guys have to go play at altitude in Mexico when we're in our preseason. I believe it's very important that's we're competitive against Mexico. We need to prove our value and worthiness against our regional rival, and winning the Champions League would be a great way to do that. It's one thing to win an exhibition against a European club that's coming over here in their preseason, and that's of great promotional value and it's fun and exciting. But we need to win the Champions League.
SI.com: Does David Beckham move the needle in MLS anymore?
Garber: Absolutely. I will say this for the rest of time: This league isn't what it is today without David Beckham. And I believe he'll continue to be able to move the needle when he comes back, hopefully sometime later this year and if not, next year.
SI.com: Regarding TV ratings, are you concerned there hasn't been a post-World Cup bump for MLS?
Garber: You know, there has been a post-World Cup bump. That bump hasn't really moved the overall average. It's only one game against 20. But the first game back, the highest rating we had of the year was the Galaxy game with Landon [against Seattle], and then we had the exhibition with San Jose and Tottenham, which was the highest rating we'd had of the entire year. I will be the first to say that you'd love to see immediate gratification right after the World Cup, but we've been at this long enough to know the water level rises slowly. It's not a tidal wave. As long as we continue to grow all our measures over time, we'll be pleased at our development. Certainly the World Cup helps, but it's not a silver bullet. I don't believe there are any silver bullets.