All signs point upwards for MLS
MLS owners are being increasingly aggressive about signing designated players
MLS is weighing up a potential television contract with the Versus network
Garber says MLS would be receptive to adopting technology to help officiating
HOUSTON -- A sellout crowd of some 70,000 is expected for the MLS All-Stars vs. Manchester United here at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión). It's only an exhibition game, of course, but it's also a chance to generate some buzz for soccer after the World Cup for MLS and for United -- which may send out Mexican star Javier (Chicharito) Hernández for his first action with the club.
Whether we'll see MLS All-Star Landon Donovan is another story. Donovan played 90 minutes on Tuesday night in Los Angeles's stunning 4-1 loss at home to second-division Puerto Rico in the CONCACAF Champions League. The loss left L.A. on the brink of elimination before the return leg and put the league's recent friendlies against European clubs into perspective. Simply put, it's hard for MLS to crow about growth when the team with the league's best record is losing games that matter in such a manner to Puerto Rico.
That said, there are several positive signs these days for MLS. New acquisition Thierry Henry will make his league debut for New York on Saturday in Houston, and all signs are pointing to the Red Bulls acquiring Mexican captain Rafael Márquez from Barcelona in the next week. Seattle and Chicago may also be signing new designated players in the coming days, and you get a sense from talking to MLS people here that they feel like the league is entering a new phase right now with increased star power and a little bit of momentum.
On Tuesday I sat down with MLS commissioner Don Garber for a conversation that touched on a number of subjects, including: Márquez to New York, MLS' willingness to adopt technology to help officiating, Donovan's future, a second MLS team in New York City and potential new TV deals for the league. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: Now that the World Cup is over, MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that is in-season right now. Do you feel like the league has put itself in a position to demand the attention of Americans who got into soccer during the World Cup?
Garber: We're certainly putting ourselves in the position to ask for their attention. I don't believe we're positioned yet to demand anything from our fans. Our pitch to the World Cup viewer is give us 90 minutes and we'll give you the game that you fell in love with at the World Cup. We'll show you that our stadiums are world-class, our supporters groups are growing and the quality of play is pretty darn good, better than most people think. That's not just me talking, that's Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry talking.
SI.com: More designated players are being signed now by MLS teams: Henry in New York, Nery Castillo in Chicago and others. Do you feel like the league has done enough to create more incentives to sign DPs?
Garber: I think you'll continue to see [the designated player] rule evolve as we try to in this case capitalize on the interest of the World Cup fan, but probably more importantly the quality of the play on our fields. That's an important goal of ours. We'll continue to look at new ways to incentivize our clubs in a balanced way, including at our board meeting [Wednesday].
SI.com: What's the latest on Rafael Márquez potentially joining the New York Red Bulls?
Garber: The Red Bulls have been deep in discussions with Rafa. I think he'd be a fantastic signing for us. There's a great story with designated players and how the signings have evolved over the years. If we're able to finalize a deal with Márquez I think it would be one of the great signings in the history of our league. We should know something within the next week. I'm very hopeful the Red Bulls will be able to finalize a deal.
SI.com: Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts recently came out and implied that Ronaldinho might be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy. What are the chances of Ronaldinho joining the Galaxy this season?
Garber: I don't believe that's something that's going to happen this year. That being said, the fact that our owners are interested in bringing a player like Ronaldinho to the league speaks to a bit more aggressiveness as it relates to player signings. I think that's good for our fans, and I think it's a good approach to try to capture some of the interest of those 24 million people [in America] who watched the World Cup final.
SI.com: Raúl is leaving Real Madrid and is joining Schalke in Germany. Why not MLS?
Garber: I think a number of our teams have had discussions with Raúl. Like everything else, sometimes deals make sense for the player and the club, and sometimes they don't. I think Raúl is a fantastic player who would excite our fans and be a good MLS signing, but whatever discussions took place are no longer ongoing.
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