Garber talks MLS' future, Beckham, goal-line technology, more
Don Garber wants MLS to be comparable with other leagues via talent and fans
Garber aims to look at making it harder for lower seeds to reach the MLS Cup
Garber is an advocate for overall instant replay beyond just goal-line technology
LOS ANGELES -- "This place looks like Don Draper's apartment in Mad Men." That was my first reaction upon stepping into MLS commissioner Don Garber's penthouse hotel suite at the Hyatt Century Plaza here for our annual talk on the league ahead of the MLS Cup final between Los Angeles and Houston on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, TeleFutura).
The venerable old hotel is decked out for the final, which will be David Beckham's last game in MLS, among other things. Garber, in his 14th year as commissioner, was gracious enough to sit down for 90 minutes on Wednesday and talk about a host of topics that are well worth taking the time to read about if you're an MLS fan. This is always one of my favorite interviews of the year, so let's dive in:
SI.com: You've set a public goal for MLS to be one of the world's top soccer leagues by 2022. What are the biggest ways in which the league has advanced toward that goal in the past year?
Garber: When we were bidding for the World Cup, we went to the MLS board and asked them to financially support the bid, and laid out a plan by which we thought if we could win the World Cup bid, here are the ways MLS could benefit by it. At that point we established a goal to say we ought to be able to be one of the top leagues in the world if we have the World Cup. Then we lost it and went back home and licked our wounds a bit. But rather than crawl under a rock, we said let's be men about this and have the same goal, and then we doubled down strategically to say let's do everything we can to put a plan in place to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the leagues.
So we've described it as four or five key objectives. The first is how would we define whether or not we've achieved it? It's one thing to have a goal, it's another to figure out when the 10 years are up are you there? So we'll define whether we've achieved that goal based on the quality of play in the league: Is that quality comparable with the rest of the other leagues? The passion of our fans: Do we have a fan base that rivals the fan bases in England or Spain or Italy or Brazil or Argentina? The relevance of our clubs: Are our teams from top to bottom important in their communities?
And the value of our enterprise: It would be easy to go out and get owners who'd want to create an FC Barcelona or Man United or New York Yankees in MLS. There are certainly enough people who could do that. But that would do to MLS what's happened in the rest of the world, which is creating a real economic instability which most people in sports think is bad for the industry. So we want to achieve those three other goals but at the same time have an enterprise that is valuable for all. Because that value will create stability and long-term viability.
This year has been more about articulating the strategic vision. What we're putting into place are the things we need to do in those four areas to ensure we're on the right track over the next 10 years. So at the start of next season we can talk about what the tactics are that we hope to embark on over the next number of years. This year, 2012, was about year one, get the strategic plan in place and get alignment on that plan. Then years two through 10 we'll be executing on that plan. At some point I'll show you the plan, because it's pretty cool. And the strategic process if pretty cool, too, how it starts with vision and goes down to strategy, breaks out on players and marketing and comes together with Soccer United Marketing. It's Harvard Business School-type stuff.
SI.com: This is David Beckham's last game in MLS on Saturday. What has the league learned about how to deal with -- and not to deal with -- a star of Beckham's stature?
Garber: I think we've learned a lot about how to manage a star of David's stature over the last five years. With David the lessons learned were probably a bit different than perhaps other Designated Players in the league, because with all of his global appeal and superstar status he actually is a regular guy. He cared about his teammates, he was good in the locker room, he was very engaged in the community. He did not want to sit in the different section of the airplane than anybody else. If they were going to fly first class he wanted others to fly up there with him. So many of the perceived challenges didn't really exist.
I think if there was one thing at the time we should have done differently, it was agreeing to the loans [of Beckham to AC Milan], which I believe hurt David's credibility with the local fans here. It wore him out, and it ultimately led to a critical Achilles injury. In retrospect now, I think that added to the story, because it wasn't just about him being here for five years and then leaving. There was intrigue, there was drama, a wide variety of things that happened around the David experience that were difficult or challenging while we were going through them but in retrospect I think added to the hugeness of the story.
SI.com: Landon Donovan says this could be his last game, too, even though his Galaxy contract runs through the end of next season. Do you think Donovan will play with the Galaxy in 2013?
Garber: I certainly hope so. That's a question for Landon and Tim [Leiweke, AEG president] and Bruce [Arena, Galaxy coach and GM]. But being out here and being with Landon today at the MLS Works [charity] event, it's clear to me what an incredibly special guy he is, not just as this American soccer hero, but he's also got a presence and leadership skills that are underrated. When Landon got up to speak at this event, he got the biggest cheer of anybody, from the mayor to Tim Leiweke to Don Garber and anybody else. Landon's a special guy, and I hope he's in this league for a very long time.