Don Garber on MLS expansion; promotion/relegation

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Don Garber is gearing up for his 18th season as Major League Soccer Commissioner.

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It promises to be the busiest yet with a record 22 teams in MLS and plenty of questions surrounding future expansion franchises elsewhere.

Ahead of the 2017 MLS season, the commissioner spoke to Sky Sports in the UK about where the next teams could be and he believes things would become a lot clearer in the next few months after 12 cities across the U.S. recently submitted formal bids for an MLS expansion franchise.

“We’ve just announced we are going to announce four new teams to go from 24 to 28 which would be the largest professional division one league in the world, 12 cities from across the United States have submitted bids and great cities where we don’t have teams; San Diego, St. Louis, Sacramento and Nashville. These are really big cities with millions and millions of people and people don’t have a division one pro team to call their own with their own stadium, so we will be a 28 team league and I think that is it for us. We have to set into the right format, build more value  and more popularity in our markest and get those stadiums up and operating. That is going to take many, many years to fulfill manage and roll out effectively.”

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The leader of MLS was then pushed on the timeline of the four new franchises joining MLS, reiterating his target for North America’s top-flight expanding to 28 teams by 2022 and then that will be that.

“By the end of the 2017 calendar year we will select teams 25 and 26, the final two will come in sometime thereafter and we haven’t really selected that date,” Garber said. “Teams 25 and 26, we hope to have coming into MLS in 2020. Then 27 and 28 probably in 2022 to match a World Cup year but this is work in progress. We are just evaluating those applications and it is very simple. We need a great owner in that market who really believes in their team, very solid and very committed to the game in our country. Then it’s the city itself, does it support the game? 20 years ago there were very few cities like that and today I think there isn’t a market anywhere in the United States which couldn’t effectively support an MLS team.”

He then stressed the notion of having a new stadium plan is the other key factor for these potential expansion franchises, as he cited the new downtown home of Orlando City SC and D.C. United breaking ground on a new stadium this week.

Garber also made his feelings very clear on the potential of promotion and relegation in MLS when asked why the league seems to be so equal with eight different champions in the past 10 seasons.

“It’s almost ironic to hear you talk about the excitement because the hardcore fan here who primarily follows the European leagues, they think that this idea of promotion and relegation is the only way to have a fair and effective competition. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t resonate with us,” Garber said. “The NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB don’t have promotion and relegation and it works just fine there. Playoffs are great, every team is working hard throughout the year. You don’t get the Leicester story, and that is one we all in the soccer business have been following with great attention.

“But the fact that every team has same resources, salary caps, we have rules on how players are acquired and how they are moved within the league and moved abroad. We have strict rules on investment which is necessary on the youth and academy levels. All of that gives each chef the same ingredients and the best chef wins, as opposed to the one who spends the most money or panicking because they’re not where they need to be halfway through the season and their fans are providing them with pressure which is unmanageable in an economically viable way. Those are the systems and we believe in it. I’m an ex-NFL guy and that league is very strong here and in the UK and around the world. We think our system is right for us.”