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Don Garber talks #SaveTheCrew status at MLS State of the League address

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has long made his MLS State of the League address during championship weekend, which continued on Friday ahead of the 2017 final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.

While Garber has taken this time in the past to address topics like expansion and new league rules, this year’s conversation was highly centered around the MLS’ current situation involving an existing club.

[ MORE: A closer look at Saturday’s MLS Cup by the numbers ]

The Columbus Crew continue to be the focal point of league-wide discussions as club owner Anthony Precourt observes his options both in the city of Columbus and outside the state of Ohio, with Austin, Texas seemingly the hottest destination for the long-time MLS side to relocate to in the near future.

Garber spoke about this issue on Friday in Toronto, which will play host to Saturday’s MLS Cup final.

“Let me be clear, it’s the league’s decision, not the league’s approval of an owner decision to determine whether or not moving out of Columbus is something that would make sense for Precourt Sports Ventures,” Garber said. “It requires club approval, but ultimately it is a decision made by the owner. We have said all along, and this was said by Anthony [Precourt] as well, that he would pursue a parallel path.

“A path to see if his situation would improve in the city of Columbus, at the same time determining if there would be a viable option in Austin. What has happened of late is we’re told that they would not continue discussions with Anthony if he was going to pursue this parallel path.

“I assume that will change. I hope that changes because I think we need to have that debate. There’s been talk of owners coming together. Anthony isn’t looking to sell the team. There’s talk about stadium opportunities, which I think are intriguing, so we need to all get back together and see if there is an opportunity to determine two possibilities.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s original side’s since MLS’ inception in 1996, when the league consisted of just 10 teams.

While Garber noted the difficulty of the matter given Columbus’ longstanding ties to Major League Soccer, the veteran commissioner noted that the club and city’s issues maintaining the Crew have been well-documented throughout the years.

“I think they’re able to address some of the concerns that we have been experiencing in that city for many years it is conceivable that the team could stay,” Garber continued. “It’s a legacy team, and it’s traumatic when an owner and league are willing to move a team, whether it’s a legacy team for 20 years or in other leagues when they’ve been around for 50.

“But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable. We have new teams coming in that are deeply-connected in the community and have more commercial revenue, higher fan bases and all the measures that matter. We’ve been experiencing issues in Columbus for many years and we’ve been somewhat quiet about this. It is among the lowest teams, between 20 out of 22 in every measure that matters in pro sports.

“Average ticket price. Average attendance. Average revenue. Their local television ratings. Their local television deal. Every aspect that is going to determine whether a team can be viable. And as our league continues to move in the right direction, we need to have strong clubs. So there’s a lot that needs to happen.”

This past season, the Crew ranked 20th league-wide in average attendance, with roughly 15,439 supporters filing into MAPFRE Stadium during the regular season. Only the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas averaged few fans on a per-match basis.

In comparison, expansion side Atlanta United — who was knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs by the Crew in 2017 — averaged over 48,000 supporters on a per-game basis, with the club boasting a league record 71,874 in one of the team’s first matches at their home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

[ MORE: Huddersfield’s Danny Williams eager to rebuild USMNT ]


Below are some of the other topics Garber addressed on Friday.

About the current MLS playoff structure

“If you could wave a magic wand, ending the season before the FIFA break in November and not have that gap then we wouldn’t have that gap you mentioned. I think it’s important to note that we’ve had higher average attendance and higher television ratings for these playoffs than any other year in our history.”

Columbus comparison to Kansas City’s struggles before new ownership took over

“Because those issues have been going on for almost since the beginning. We had, and it was before I came to MLS, but the first year was remarkable. Lamar Hunt went in and said ‘I’ll think of Columbus as an inaugural team.’ You need to have a local ticket campaign. I think they had 10,000 season tickets. Almost since then, after the stadium was built, it took a couple years to settle in. We’ve been struggling to resonate in that market.

“I made this comment, and I’ll make it again. I did it in an interview with someone this morning. The Hunt Sports Group, when they owned the team, had invested over $200 million. Anthony Precourt has invested nearly $40 million. You can read what investor and investment lost kind of synonymously. We’ve had those challenges for a long time, so we don’t think it’s an issue of ownership.

The possibility of one of the upcoming expansion teams leaping over Miami

“It’s conceivable. It’s conceivable that that could happen.”

Are soccer-specific stadiums a necessity for clubs trying to enter MLS?

“That question is going to get answered as we debate Detroit’s bid, which was very strong. It had a very creative way of downsizing Ford Field, but was not part of the original requirements that we had when we sent out RFPs to the 12 cities that raised their hand. I think something I’ve said to all of you is that this is an evolving league. We’re 22 years old. We’re competing against leagues like the NFL that have celebrated 100 years next year. We’ve got to be sure we’re evolving our decisions along with how our league evolves, how our fan base evolves, all that goes into what makes teams successful.”

When asked about NYCFC playing two home matches away from Yankee Stadium in 2017

“It’s not optimal. It wreaks havoc on our schedule. It’s not good for fans. And I think Jon Patricof is a good local chief business officer. They’ve been patient, but it’s been a challenge. I think if we were going to look at this situation today, as if New York City was going to come in as team 25 or 26 or even 27 or 28 we would have required that there be a stadium finalized at that time.”

On recent developments in U.S. Soccer Federation presidential race

“Let me start by saying that I understand why people are upset that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. When you miss it it’s a disappointment for all of us.  For media, for fans, for league executives, for federation staff and players. I spoke to many of them after Trinidad. I think there’s been a lot of attempts to attribute blame as if there’s one switch you can pull and then all of the sudden it changes. And I think this process, which has been traumatic to the system, has us taking a step back and realizing that we were all experiencing positive momentum.

“We were beginning to think that we cracked the code, and when you have things that set you back it allows for strong people to work within and reach outside your group to get better. I actually think will be a positive, at least on the men’s side, for U.S. Soccer, and even the league. It will force us to be more integrated on our development programs within the federation. It’ll force the non-affiliated teams that aren’t affiliated with MLS to think more about what they need to do, like we have been within the federation to bring in better coaches. Maybe they address some of the structural challenges that exist at the youth level.

“Maybe we are more open to thinking about the Tyler Adams’ of the world playing for a year or two and then going overseas.  There are a dozen other things like that.I believe strongly that soccer in America is, in many cases today, stronger because of the relationship between our league and the investments and our federation. I will segway to Sunil [Gulati], who has been an unbelievable leader for the federation. He hasn’t gotten enough credit for that as we’ve gone through that recent narrative.

“You’ve got thriving leagues. You’ve got an incredible launch of the women’s league, which was almost a single-handed commitment on his part. You’ve got a strong commercial business. You’re got a corpus of income sitting in the coppers waiting to be deployed and allocated. You’ve got a supporter movement. There are a lot of things that have happened. We didn’t qualify, and that stinks, but the sky isn’t falling and we just need to be smart in how we work together to ensure that this doesn’t happen four years from now.”

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

[ Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise ]

Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

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This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.