Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber says he doesn’t believe the MLS Cup final between two small-market teams – Portland and Columbus – is somehow less-than ideal for the league.
“Sitting where we sit, we want great teams with passionate fans playing in our Cup regardless of the size of the market. I actually believe it’s good when the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series, or Columbus and Portland are in the MLS Cup,” Garber said. “It plays into the theory that every fan can believe that their team can win the MLS Cup – regardless of their market size.”
The Crew and the Timbers face off Sunday in Columbus for the league’s championship trophy. The Crew defeated the big-market New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference final, while the Timbers outplayed Dallas in the West.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Garber reflected on the league’s 20th anniversary season, which saw the addition of two new franchises, a collective bargaining agreement, and increased overall attendance and television exposure.
It comes at a time when soccer overall is experiencing a bump in the United States and Canada. It took hold with the U.S. men’s team advancing to the knockout round at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and continued with the U.S. women winning the World Cup in Canada last summer.
The MLS contributed to the boost by adding a pair of expansion teams, New York City FC and Orlando City SC. The addition of NYCFC created a high-profile rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, while Orlando’s franchise capitalized on a well-established fan base.
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Orlando City drew 62,510 fans to its opener at the Citrus Bowl, and went on to average 32,847 fans during the season. The team’s 12 wins tied the record for an expansion team, and striker Cyle Larin was honored as the league’s Rookie of the Year.
NYCFC, owned by the New York Yankees and the English Premier League’s Manchester City, was the league’s 20th franchise. With proven star power in World Cup-winning Spanish forward David Villa, the team drew an average of just over 29,000 a game at Yankee Stadium. But the team finished 10-18-7 and out of the playoffs.
With the addition of the two new teams, league attendance made a 12 percent jump this season.
“I had two favorite moments this season, and they were the opening games in Orlando, for Orlando City SC, and at Yankee Stadium for NYCFC,” Garber said. “I was just so overjoyed to see the level of support for both those clubs, and the massive crowds at their opening games.”
There were other milestones for the league. With the subtraction of Chivas USA, the league realigned to create two 10-team conferences.
MLS rebranded at the start of the season to mark the league’s 20th anniversary, and welcomed a new soccer-specific home for the San Jose Earthquakes. International stars including Sebastian Giovinco, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard joined the league.
“Our owners made a real commitment to bringing some world-class players that have really attracted attention outside of the core soccer fan base. Guys like (Andrea) Pirlo, Gerrard, Lampard and Kaka. These are players that broke through the clutter,” Garber said. “I think when you look at the expansion, the big-name players that we brought it, our new television deals – it allowed us to capitalize on the momentum that started with the World Cup in 2014.”
Going forward, the league will add teams in Atlanta and Minnesota, as well as a replacement for Chivas in Los Angeles. A group led by David Beckham is trying to secure a site for a soccer stadium in Miami.
“Thinking back to where we were during my first year in ’99, with 12 teams and one soccer stadium, and a real question about whether the league would survive, and then to ’01 when we contracted down to 10 teams and were really struggling to find a plan that we could go forward with,” Garber said. “Now, to sit here 20 years in, with 20 teams, 15 stadiums and soon to be three or four more teams, and all the world-class players that we’ve been able to attract, it does surprise me we’ve been able to get where we are today.”
And that is what makes Garber hopeful for the future.
“I think the best way to sum it up is the best is yet to come,” Garber said. “We’ve come a long way in the past 20 years, but I really deeply believe our best days are still ahead.”