Garber talks MLS future, more (cont.)
SI.com: In this final you have the teams with the eighth- and ninth-best records during the regular season. The top two regular-season teams, one and two, have only met in the final three times, and not once since 2003. Wouldn't it be possible to reward the top regular-season teams more in the playoffs so that the lower seeds have a higher hill to climb to reach the final than they currently do?
Garber: I think the answer to that is yes. There's no reason why we couldn't have a system like that. But the statistics are a little lopsided, because you have Houston and L.A., who've been in four and seven finals. There's not enough real data to get statistics that can drive decision-making. The answer to the question is we certainly could and probably should look at making it harder for lower-seeded teams to be able to make the championship game. But there is something to be said about playoff teams, playoff coaching, hardened successful systems where those teams that need to win somehow always figure out a way to do that. That itself is a positive story.
SI.com: Goal-line technology is finally set to debut in a couple weeks at the FIFA Club World Cup. When does MLS start using goal-line technology?
Garber: I read an article today on the BBC website on the two competing systems and that FIFA might look at licensing others, and the issue is clearly the cost and two different technologies. MLS is investing deeply in officiating. I saw a presentation from [MLS officiating czar] Peter Walton yesterday that we'll give at our board meeting on Friday to update our owners on the investments that we're making and the procedures we're putting into place on the new plan we have with U.S. Soccer and the CSA to try to improve the quality of our officials similar to how we're trying to improve the quality of our players.
But it's a long-term proposition. Technology in my view should play a role there. I see no reason why we wouldn't continue to look at goal-line technology and find ways if it's affordable to utilize it within the league. At a half-million dollars a system for the handful of times it would be utilized, it's hard to imagine that's a good investment rather than perhaps putting money into other things that might truly improve the quality of our play. But I do believe pricing will come down with more competitors eventually licensed, and we'll continue to moderate it.
I would say if I were king [of world soccer] I would be an advocate for instant replay.
SI.com: You mean replay for things on the field other than goal-line calls?
Garber: Beyond goal-line technology. I know that's anathema to the rest of the world and the powers that be, but it just seems to me that we live here in a country where you win or lose based on what happens on the field as opposed to what might potentially be an error by a third party, that being the officials. I have no ability to achieve that within MLS, but I think it would be smart for the soccer community to look at it.
SI.com: What are the chances of goal-line technology being in place for the start of the 2013 season?
SI.com: One of the big stories this year was the MLS Disciplinary Committee taking a much bigger role in retro-punishments. What's your assessment of how that worked?
Garber: We're making a presentation [to owners] on it here. The league has always had an active role in reviewing plays after the fact and disciplining players for overly physical or violent play or actions that we believed though missed by the officials warranted discipline. Early in the league's history that was somewhat controversial. Our owners, the players themselves, the MLSPU and the league office have come together and created a program that I believe works very effectively. The numbers of plays that have been reviewed this year have gone down significantly from years past because players now know that just because it's not seen by the official it doesn't mean they're going to get away with it.
They also know how important the safety of our players is to us as well as to their clubs, and therefore we'll do whatever we can to ensure our players are kept safe on the field, regardless of whether or not the official catches it. And we believe that our players are role models every day. Tens of millions of people are watching our games, and we want our players to lead by example. The best way to eliminate that kind of behavior is to provide carrots and sticks.
SI.com: So you're saying we're beyond speculating whether the Disciplinary Committee has had an impact. You know it?
Garber: We know it. We have the statistics. We're changing behavior.
This is not an initiative that was created by the commissioner's office and pushed down to the players with the support of ownership. This came down from ownership with the support of our coaches to have a more attractive style of play. And we believe the disciplinary process has been working, with the union as our partner. They have the right to appeal. The number of appeals has gone down, too. This was a great year for the disciplinary process.
SI.com: Speaking of officiating, I had an MLS owner tell me recently there's a cooling-off period when owners are not supposed to contact you about refereeing after a game. What is that cooling-off period, and how low is your tolerance for people criticizing MLS refereeing?
Garber: Well, there is a very specific 24-hour rule where we are requiring that team ownership, staff and coaches not contact the commissioner or Nelson Rodriguez, our head of operations and competition, in the heat of the moment. We think that's just smart. Frankly, having a 24-hour rule for any emotional issue is a smart plan to put in place.
I fully accept there's a view among most MLS supporters that the officiating isn't good enough, and like all things it can improve, and with the creating of PRO and hiring Peter Walton I believe that will. I think our officials need to be brave enough, as they have been in other sports, to sort of step up at times and say, hey, I made a mistake. It would humanize them more and put them in a position to be just like anybody else, not to be perceived as having to be perfect, because none of us are.
I do believe there's a level of hysteria that's created that bubbled up from a variety of areas that creates an air of negativity that's not entirely deserved. In many cases it starts with our coaches, who are at times overly emotional on the sidelines and arguing throughout the game. That negative energy is transferred to their players, who then argue with the officials on the field. That's picked up by the fans, who are screaming on every call right or wrong. And unfortunately in many cases it's picked up by our broadcasters, and in many cases it's unwarranted.
An interesting tidbit is several years ago we had an initiative that's still in place to work on having MLS players further their careers in the sport in a wide variety of areas. It's one of the things I'm most proud of. We've had over a dozen players become head coaches. There's no shortage of technical directors. We've offered our players the opportunity to participate in a referee career training program. And not one player has volunteered.
SI.com: And that surprises you? Really?
Garber: The fact that doesn't surprise anybody is the point, because with all the criticism that our officials get, why would anybody want to be an official? Yet I think it's fair to say we don't have a game without having the guy in the center circle. So we as a league need to work much harder to eliminate all this dissent and negativity so we can have our PRO plan put into place and start doing this right from the bottom up. And I'm very confident we'll be able to achieve that. Peter Walton is smart. We've invested in our plan deeply, and I absolutely believe the changes will come, though it won't be overnight.