MLS commissioner Don Garber has told ESPN the league has undergone a "seismic shift" in the way it buys and sells its talent and has become a big player in the global transfer market.
There were claims MLS had become a "selling league" following Miguel Almiron's record transfer to Newcastle United, but Garber -- in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with ESPN's Taylor Twellman -- said MLS is now also able to buy some of the world's top young players, such as South American player of the year Pity Martinez, who was acquired by Atlanta United last month.
Garber, who has been MLS commissioner since 1999 and recently signed a five-year deal to remain in the role, explained the development of the league in recent seasons and offered updates on potential expansion teams, the playoffs, and what to look out for ahead of the new season.
ESPN: Major League Soccer is entering its 24th season here in 2019 and some would say that it's coming off its most successful season in 2018. What should we expect in 2019?
Garber: Well you know, last year was unbelievable. More goals, more shots on goal. There was a dynamic around our league that had us really competing with the rest of the world. Something that we were very proud of. This year it's only going to be bigger and better. We have a new team coming on in Cincinnati, we have a beautiful new stadium, Allianz, coming on in Minnesota. We're going to have a very excited All-Star Game in the midseason. We're keying up to building on all of this momentum. We've got the South American player of the year [Pity Martinez] joining our team in Atlanta. We've got two great coaches that have joined the league -- three great coaches that have come from other leagues. So I think everybody who is following will expect and see a level of player and a level of excitement that will raise the bar even higher.
ESPN: Did you think when you took this job as Commissioner of Major League Soccer there would be a stadium like Allianz Field in St Paul, Minnesota?
Garber: No I didn't, and I love it. I love the pictures that are posted. Bill McGuire, the owner of that team, put such love and care into that stadium. Great community support and civic support, and it's going to be beautiful. It's going to be lit up different times of the year in different colors, but most importantly it's the home for Minnesota United and their fans. A very passionate fan base that's been coming out and supporting their team all their games are sold out. You know it's going to be rocking in St. Paul, in the midway between St. Paul and Minneapolis.
ESPN: You just talked about Cincinnati and Minnesota, and since Seattle joined the league in 2009 nine franchises have joined Major League Soccer. And on the docket right now you have Nashville, Miami, Austin, and yet there's that fourth expansion team. Where are we in that process?
Garber: You know we've got to make a decision sometime soon. There's no specific timetable, but we need to have that 28th team selected. St. Louis and Sacramento were bidding hard for that remaining spot, the 28th spot. Both have great new ownership groups, both have great stadium plans. We'll get our expansion committee together, get our ownership together and we'll try and make a decision sometime this year.
ESPN: Is there any way you could see a situation where you see both Sacramento and St. Louis come in immediately?
Garber: I don't see that happening, but we've broken the mould so many different times and different ways with expansion. But we do think we need to select that 28th team and then figure what, if any, plans we have to go beyond that.
ESPN: Recently you signed a new deal to be the commissioner of Major League Soccer for a further five years. Is this going to be your last deal?
Garber: Listen, let me get through year one of the new deal before I think about whether it be my last. It's been 20 years for me and the league has experienced a lot of growth, and there's been a lot of passion from our staff and our ownership and our players. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got at least three, maybe four new teams coming on in that period. We'll have four or five new stadiums coming on board. We'll have the run-up to the World Cup in 2026. We'll have new tournaments taking place in and around our region with CONCACAF, and here in our country. So [there's] lots of work still to do.
ESPN: When it's all said and done, how many teams will be in Major League Soccer, because I feel like when I listen to you speak, and some owners, 30-32 seems to be the number that everyone's looking at.
Garber: We got to get 28 done, and we've got to get them all on-boarded, as we've been working hard with Cincinnati, Nashville, Miami and soon Austin. But you know I do believe there is no city in this country that can't support a Major League Soccer team with rabid fan base, with a great stadium plan, with a committed ownership group, with a community that will get beyond the club. So we'll sit down with our ownership group this year and determine whether we go beyond 28 to 30. Where that goes and when that goes is really too premature to say.
ESPN: In your 20 years when did that change for you? What franchise convinced you of the thought: "You know what, we can have more than 18-20 teams in this league"?
Garber: I think Atlanta probably did. Seattle in 2009 comes in and nobody ever thought we'd ever have tens of thousands of fans and 30-40,000 season tickets. Atlanta comes in, it's got 55,000 fans on average. But every new team that's come on has been absolutely fantastic. We had a stadium that's supposed to be 20,000 seats, we expanded it to 27 in Orlando. We have an unbelievable dynamic going on in the rebirth of a club in Kansas City, with a new stadium, a new ownership group selling out every game that they've had since they've been in Children's Mercy Park.
Portland comes on and sets a new bar. Vancouver does the same thing. There's been so much growth that's driven by the passion of our country to get behind a division one soccer league like Major League Soccer, with great players, great teams great community-based ownership groups that ultimately are raising the bar every year.
ESPN: You mentioned the rebirth of Kansas City, now Sporting Kansas City. We were just together in Columbus and now that resurrection, Save the Crew, has happened. I'm going to put you on the spot here -- if you could pick one market right now that in the next five years that will rejuvenate and re-change itself, what would it be?
Garber: I think we need new stadiums in New York and in Boston. We need a new stadium solution or a different stadium solution in Chicago. Those are three of the top markets in the country and if they're able to solve what are legacy stadium projects and move to the downtown urban core I'm convinced that those teams in large cities will give the league even more wind its sails. But every team ultimately has their own unique opportunity and their own unique dynamics. I think our ownership group is, in my view, among the best in professional sports anywhere in the world. They love the league, they love their clubs, they love their community and when I think they get focused on trying to get better and better each year and working with each other strategically great things happen.
ESPN: At your state of the league address in December 2018, your first comment was that MLS needed to become more of a selling league. That is a seismic shift in Major League Soccer's philosophy, and yet we saw it immediately. How difficult was that to convince the owners that you've now got to become a player in the global market?
Garber: Well I think the key thing is it's the last point. The comment was more about becoming a player in the global market, buying and selling. Being part of the energy that drives the development of young players, the sale of young players, the buying of young players. It's the buying and selling, and I think that comment, probably should have been a little more thoughtful. It wasn't being a selling league, it was being a broader participant in global market, and I think that's what we've become.
If you think about where we were over the last period, nearly $100 million was spent on buying players and $65m or so earned from the sale of players. That's the seismic shift, the fact that players have looked at Major League Soccer and made our clubs their club of choice and our league their league of choice. Pity Martinez could have gone anywhere and he came to Major League Soccer and to Atlanta United.
ESPN: Are the owners bought in on that?
Garber: I think they absolutely are and Taylor, it's also coaches. You have [Guillermo Barros] Schelotto coming in, you have some of the great coaches, Frank de Boer and the new coach in San Jose [Matias Almeyda] that have come into our league. Coaching Chivas Guadalajara to a championship, coaching in South America and playing in the Copa Libertadores final. I mean these are some of the best coaches in the world, they're coming to Major League Soccer. So that speaks to being engaged in the global market. That's what we need to be and need to continue to do if we want to be one of the top leagues in the world.
ESPN: The second part of your state of the league address in December 2018 was the change of the playoff structure, to reward what goes on in the regular season. Do you think we finally see that gravitas to the regular season that we haven't really seen in years past?
Garber: Well again, I always believed, never accepted even though you and I debated a lot, that every single club went into every single game wanting to win because they've got to deliver for their fans. And we've had challenges with our playoff schedule, as the international calendar continues to shift, we have no control over that. The league continues to grow, our schedule gets moved this way and that. We needed to find a way to make our playoffs even more compelling than they were and I think this is the right format.
It's single elimination, the North American fan loves that. It's do or die, it's going to create a compelling moment of truth. We see our television ratings and our audiences grow. When we have those single-elimination games and I think we're going to have that here. We're going to move the end of our season a little bit earlier, we'll give our teams an opportunity to both rest, but perhaps participate in other competitions and ultimately give us something that I think will transform in the league going forward.
ESPN: You have one thing to pick right now to watch for in 2019, what is it?
Garber: I think you're going to see a great story coming out of the importance of our playoff. Caring about how our regular season, every game mattering even more leading up to a compelling format, leading up to the MLS Cup.