PORTLAND, Ore. – In a wide-ranging discussion with members of the media here ahead of Wednesday's AT&T All-Star Game (9:30 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas, TSN, RDS), MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott went deep into the topic of the league's potential expansion, particularly with regards to recent reports about Sacramento.
News reports over the weekend claim the owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings are in discussions to invest in USL PRO side Sacramento Republic FC.
“Obviously, there are a lot of really wonderful things going on in Sacramento," Abbott said. "The market itself is a really great market. But what’s been happening with Republic has been a really good news story."
Representatives from the lower-division side are reportedly set to meet with MLS here in Portland, and Abbott said league officials will visit Sacramento sometime later this year to visit potential stadium sites.
"There are significant people in Sacramento who have an interest in seeing MLS come there," he said. "Including the mayor, who has been quite vocal about that. He’s really an advocate. We have great respect for what the new Kings ownership group has done with the Kings. And when you look at what Warren [Smith, club president] has done with Republic, I think that’s a really great story.”
But Sacramento is not the only attractive market in the running for a potential expansion club, Abbott confirmed. In addition to Minnesota, Abbott remarked on three other cities.
“Las Vegas is a place I visited recently," he said. "There’s been a group there that has been public about their desire to bring a team and that’s a group that I’ve met with. There are people in San Antonio and Austin who have been public about interest in the league. Each one is different, but there are serious people who have serious interest in MLS.
“All the markets are exciting markets for us."
So why stop at 24? one journalist in attendance asked.
“When we started the league, we did a lot to study all the other professional sports leagues, and we studied the (original) North American Soccer League, specifically," Abbott replied. "We were concerned not about the ultimate size but the rapidness of the expansion. When we think about expansion, we try to think about it strategically. What’s the right rate of growth for us?
"We’ve determined that the right rate of growth for us is to get to 24 teams by 2020. We think that’s the right balance for a variety reasons – the player pool that we have, the way our television contracts work – so other than to say it’s our business judgment, I can’t point to any one particular answer.”
Below are more of Abbott's remarks on various topics.
On youth development and the Homegrown system:
“We now have a system that incentivizes player development because we recognize the importance of it. I agree, there will be some players who choose to continue their development here, some might not. But it’s been a big priority of ours. It was exciting to see [DeAndre Yedlin] come out of the Homegrown system and play in the World Cup this summer.”
“Everything for us is relatively new. It’s only in the last four or five years that we’ve been doing that and that those types of investments have been made. So it’s still too early from our perspective to say what the story has been other than to say that it’s going in the right direction for us.”
On MLS’s partnership with the USL PRO and whether MLS clubs will be required to field a USL PRO side, such as LA Galaxy II:
“The partnership with the USL, either through an LA Galaxy II-type model or the affiliation model has been very productive. I think a key part of player development. It is one of the things we have to do: Find playing opportunities for these young players who might not be ready to or have the opportunity to break into the first team. So I really think that’s been a good model for us.”
On the recent proposal from several college-soccer coaches to extend the college-soccer season to the full academic year:
“We’re supportive because of a belief that it’s good for college soccer. And what’s good for college soccer and good for player development is ultimately good for us. We haven’t decided yet how to deal with it from a draft perspective and a combine perspective. But generally, we’re supportive of changes that will help make college soccer better. College soccer community is coming together around that.”
On whether the league plans to raise the salary cap:
“Over time, we’re going to continue to invest more and more in players. And I think we’ve shown that consistently. So there is no specific formula that I can give you, but we recognize the continuing importance of growing the product on the field. And there are different ways to go about that. I have not specific approach other than to say that I think we’ve shown in the last couple of years the continuing desire to invest in the players and that’s not going to go away.”
On the upcoming negotiations for the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players’ Association:
“The CBA is about investing in players. Those discussions sometimes will be about in what way will you invest in players or how much will you invest in players. Those are discussions we will have to have. Obviously, we can’t make any final decisions about investments until all of that is done.”
“We’re not going into it looking for a work stoppage. That’s not our plan. It’s nobody’s desire. It’s nobody’s objective. I think it’s way premature to be talking about anything like that. First, I would say that we have a good partnership with our players and our players’ association, and we talk a lot to them about a lot of things. I think in the last CBA, we were able to resolve a lot of issues that made life better for our players. I think that helped with some of the flashpoints that we had.”
“Secondly, we are tremendously proud of our players in the way that they both conduct themselves on the field and off the field. We think that is a great characteristic of our player pool. And they are committed to helping build the sport. They recognize that we have work to do to build it, and I think they’re great about that. We’re very proud about that. CBAs, by their very nature, involve contention. There will be disagreements over a whole variety of issues.
"Sometimes that contention can get a little noisy and there will be public aspects to it and we’d prefer that doesn’t happen. My view is, if we can keep it in the negotiating room, I think that provides everybody more flexibility to get something done. But I have no illusions to about the fact that it will get public and contentious at some point. But we don’t go into with that. We met with the association a little while ago and they said the same thing. They’d like to see if we can do something without all the noise.
“In terms of the underlying facts, there are many good news stories that we have, and we continue to face financial challenges at both the league level and the team level. We will be very open with our players about that and we will be very clear about the financial condition of our teams and our league and clear about the type of investments we can make and clear about the type of investments that we can’t make. We don’t go into looking for a fight, and neither do they. We’ll see how it plays out.”
On the future of Chivas USA and potential stadium locations in Los Angeles:
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to potential interested buyers. I don't have a specific timetable yet. … We’ve talked about [the University of Southern California] as a site. There are other sites but we haven’t spent as much time on that. At USC, the idea is a simple one: to tear down the [Los Angeles Memorial] Sports Arena and put up a soccer stadium. But I’m sure there will be other opportunities and other ideas."
- Note: Abbott confirmed that the team would continue to play at StubHub Center while waiting for its own stadium to be completed.
"We believe Los Angeles is a market that has the capacity for two clubs. As you know, we love rivalries. We see that in the Northwest. We think that the rivalry in LA can be as compelling. That's the rationale for why we have both NYCFC and the Red Bulls in New York."
On a potential shift to the international schedule, in the wake of comments made by FIFA president Sepp Blatter on Monday:
“What I’ll say is what [MLS Commissioner Don Garber] said last year. We looked at it last fall and we concluded that at this point in time, it was not a change that we could make. We don’t rule it out for some point in the future, but there’s not an imminent plan to change to the international calendar."
On whether the league would ever consider promotion-relegation:
"I would say it never happens."
On potential plans for the All-Star Game to an Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format, as was suggested by current all-star Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders on Monday.
“We think that this format works really well for us. We think it brings a really cool dynamic to the game to be playing international competition. Serendipitous is the word I would use for this year. When we did a deal with Bayern, we didn’t know Germany was going to win the World Cup. It really worked out in a very unique way, and I think that brings a great dimension to this game.
"I rule nothing out to what the All-Star Game format could be in the future. There’s no specific plan to go to East-West, and there’s no specific plan to change the format right now. But we’re always looking for ways to continue to grow out crown-jewel events."