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November 11, 2011 at 5:23 PM

Highlights from commissioner Don Garber’s conference call

I had a couple earlier posts on the biggest news from Thursday’s leaguewide conference call with MLS commissioner Don Garber (34-game unbalanced schedule and the 2011 MLS Best XI). But I wanted to come back and provide the other highlights from his state of the league address, so you’ll find those below and after the jump.

I’ll try to get to the Q&A portion of the call in the near future (it’s close to an hour long, so it may take a while), but you can listen to it for yourself on the league website.

* * *

— After starting with some details on a supporters’ summit before the MLS Cup in L.A., Garber said he’s hoping some news will come out of a board meeting Saturday. A press conference would likely follow later in the day or on Sunday before the game.

— Garber said L.A. is “buzzing” with the MLS Cup down there. The city has hosted several championships over the last 16 years, but it’s only the third time a team has hosted the final in its home stadium. The game is sold out and is expected to be packed. There should also be around 1,500 traveling Houston fans, which would be the most for an away team.

— High demand and interest surrounding the MLS Cup, Garber said, marks the end of what has been a good year for the league. Why? He said it starts with the momentum that continues with success in expansion markets, Portland and Vancouver. The Timbers are selling out every game and have 1,000s on waiting lists for season tickets. Vancouver also sold out most of its games. Most importantly, he said, those teams are deeply embedded in their community and continue the success that’s taken place in previous expansion cities in Philadelphia, Seattle and Toronto. Garber praised Jeld-Wen Field as a venue and admitted he wasn’t sure how the renovation would turn out. He called it a fantastic place that “adds to the character and the soccer-specific stadium story that we’ve had in our league for so many years. Then he called BC Place a “technological marvel” and encouraged people to visit. Garber said Eintracht Frankfurt was the team with a stadium with a similar retractable roof. He said if other stadiums are able to replicate BC Place it can change the dynamic with fans and also things that they can do on the field.

— Garber said the league feels good about a continued investment in the on-field product. Rosters were expanded to 30 per club. The reserve league was re-launched. Millions of dollars were invested in youth development and academies. Over 40 academy products have signed pro contracts. Just a few years ago there weren’t academies at all and Garber thinks they’ll be huge in establishing connections with the local markets, and ultimately help develop better players and provide them a quicker path to a professional career. He mentioned New England’s Diego Fagundez and Philadelphia’s Zach Pfeffer as good examples, but said there are no shortage of guys (e.g. Juan Agudelo of New York).

— Toronto FC has broken ground on a $20 million training academy and training ground, according to Garber. It’s the largest investment any MLS club has made in a standalone facility. He hopes it’ll be a model for other teams.

— Young players continue to be important to MLS, Garber said. FC Dallas’ Brek Shea is a finalist for MVP. C.J. Sapong of Sporting Kansas City was Rookie of the Year and showed the league is still very focused on the college ranks. The league continues to be in contact with NCAA and college coaches to help maximize player development.

— Garber said there’s a lot of continued investment in designated players. There are now 23 DPs on roster, up from 13 at the same time last year. Providing incentives to sign younger DPs is very important he said (e.g. Fabian Castillo in Dallas). Garber thinks you’ll see more interest and impact from that initiative announced back in August. He believes the single-entity structure, which is commonly criticized, has helped the league grow in this regard. It allows them to look for opportunities and make changes very quickly.

— Business regarding American soccer and MLS continues to grow, Garber said, even in a down economy. There has been growth in “all of our measures,” he said. Attendance is up. Revenues have grown from a ticketing perspective in most if not all of the markets. There were 87 sellouts across the league this season. There were great stories in several markets, he said, including the near 64,000+ plus in Seattle for Kasey Keller‘s last regular-season home game. New soccer stadiums continue to be developed — Houston is ahead of schedule and Montreal is a bit behind schedule, but should still be ready for the second half of the year. 15 of the 19 stadiums for next year, he said, were built with soccer in mind. TV ratings for all networks had double-digit growth, according to Garber. Everyone surely wants larger audiences, he said, “but the bottom line is we’re growing. More and more people are watching our games and that’s important. That makes us happy. It’s a good trend. It makes our broadcast partners happy.” He said it probably led to the aggressiveness of the NBC sports group bid for the FOX Soccer package. Garber said he was excited for next year and also thanked the FOX Soccer folk and praised them for winning the rights to the World Cup. “By the way, all of that is good for us,” Garber said. “The more money that goes into soccer in America, the more Major League Soccer will ultimately be able to benefit.” Merchandise sales are growing exponentially, he said. The majority of the people in stadiums are wearing the club colors and that’s important. Lastly on the business side, Garber said the league website is getting a lot of page views and unique visitors after a rough start., he said, but has become a terrific website and one they’re proud of. Called it a go-to place for soccer fans and something they’ll continue to invest in.

— “Expansion is still a big focus of ours,” Garber said. MLS officials are spending a lot of time on the search for a 20th team. He mentioned the New York reporters will probably ask about it more in the Q&A portion of the call, but they hope to make progress in that area.

— Garber said the league has been getting together the competition committee several times over the past year, including last week and later on Thursday. They’ll do a real rethink of the competition format, he said. Garber was hoping to announce some resolutions Thursday, but will have to defer likely to MLS Cup for those news items. Garber mentioned the members that make up the committee, which includes Sounders FC general manager and part owner Adrian Hanauer.

— I’ll make this a new bullet point, and it starts with some aforementioned news, but Garber announced that the 2012 MLS schedule will consist of 34 games and will therefore be unbalanced. While not finalized, Garber said there’s a very strong possibility that MLS Cup hosting rights will go to the finalist with the best regular-season record. Capturing the excitement in the L.A. area for this MLS Cup is something they’d like to continue in future finals. Garber said the playoff format is up for discussion. There are some new initiatives to promote attacking soccer, changes to the discipline code, a scouting initiative and more. He said there will be a “real deep dive on officiating” and working with U.S. Soccer and the CSA to find a was to manage that aspect of the game — who the refs are, where they come from, who they work for, how they’re paid, assessment, etc. Then Garber added: “I’m going to make a comment on this and it’s something that I don’t know that our fans agree with, but our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for. I think a lot of this is perception versus reality.” He said the difference in MLS players and top-flight players is greater than the difference between MLS refs and those, for example, in the Premier League. He said it’s a process and they can evaluate every play from lots of angles that fans don’t see.

— As has been blogged about earlier, the 2011 MLS Best XI, as voted by players, media and club officials, was announced. One more time the team is: GK Keller (Sounders FC, Garber added the words great and legendary), D Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), D Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy, who Garber said deserves some USMNT call-ups), D Todd Dunivant (LA Galaxy), M Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), M Brek Shea (FC Dallas), M Brad Davis (Houston), M David Beckham, F Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), F Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United) and F Thierry Henry (New York). De Rosario was listed a midfielder in the news release, but no MLS team plays consistently with three defenders, so trying to base it off a real formation is a bit loose anyways.

— The MLS Referee of the Year was announced as Mark Geiger. The top assistant referee was Corey Rockwell. The referee for the MLS Cup has not been determined, but will be announced soon, Garber said.

— Garber thanked those journalists that have been to every MLS Cup since the league’s inception: Steven Goff of The Washington Post, Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America, Michael Lewis of Garber referenced how the NFL recognizes journalists who had been to dozens of Super Bowls, and said the media are big part of the fabric of the sport in bringing the game and league to fans in North America and the world.

— Garber also mentioned a couple community projects that MLS W.O.R.K.S. is hosting. They’ll be building a playground near The Home Depot Center and refurbishing a library, both in Carson, Calif., in the run up to the MLS Cup.


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