It’s been an “epic year” for Major League Soccer.
That’s how MLS Commissioner Don Garber described the 2015 season -- which comes to a conclusion with Sunday's MLS Cup final -- during his annual end-of-year “State of the League” address with reporters on Thursday. After recounting stories of how the league flirted with shutting down in 2001, Garber went on to cite many examples from the league's 20th season of how MLS has “come a long way” -- from succesful expansion clubs to new TV contracts to an influx of global stars like Kaká, Didier Drogba, and Sebastian Giovinco, who was recently crowned league MVP for 2015.
"There was a time when we questioned whether this league will survive," he said, "and we have not only survived, we have thrived."
For Garber, Sunday's championship match between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC, two of the league's small-market clubs, epitomizes an important aspect of the league's continued progress.
“We believe we have one of the most competitive leagues in the world,” Garber said. “I embrace the fact that two of our smallest markets are in the MLS Cup because it validates this idea that in our world every fan should believe that their team has the chance to win the MLS Cup. It is not a league of haves and have-nots. It’s a league that if you’re smart, you get rewarded. And if you’re not smart, you get penalized. That’s something that I think is empowering to fans and, frankly, should be something that has everybody around the league feeling good about.”
Among the other topics Garber discussed was spending on players, which he said has increased five times since 2007, and big-name Designated Player signings are just a part of that.
“It’s gone up dramatically,” Garber said. “We’re spending almost $120 million on DPs. That’s six times what we spent five years ago. So if we’re able to grow our business, our owners are going to spend more money. And it’s not just going to be on our core roster. It’s going to be on areas where we can spend more on players that will improve quality."
He added: "But we’ve got to be smart about it.”
One of those areas where spending has been “dramatically” increasing is on youth development academies. Clubs continue to create their own USL teams to give their younger players a better environment to develop, and Garber sees this as beneficial not only to those clubs, but also to the league as a whole.
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“It’s obviously a deep investment and something that’s been much more productive to us than the reserve league approach that we had for many years,” the commissioner said. “The relationship is a strong one. I really do believe – and I know that many fans question this – in the soccer pyramid. And I believe there is a place for secondary leagues to help grow the sport at all levels.”
As another season wraps up, Garber has been “spending time thinking about” scheduling and the league’s playoff format. One aspect that will be discussed heading into 2016 is whether MLS will keep the away-goal rule in the playoffs, which the league has had for the last two years. Before the 2014 playoffs, MLS used a straight aggregate-scoring system.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to look at whether [the away goals format] is working to inspire the kind of play that we want in each leg,” Garber said. “And whether or not it makes sense for a growing fan base that has really expanded beyond the core who very much understand the world of international football formats.”
On the international scene, Garber stated that the league is “very seriously considering” taking a break in the 2016 for the Copa America Centenario, which will take place in the United States in June.
He also weighed in on Thursday’s breaking news about the arrest of several FIFA executives, including CONCACAF's acting president, Alfredo Hawit. He said the recent Department of Justice actions won’t affect next summer’s marquee tournament and, in general, will do little to diminish the momentum of soccer in America and Canada.
To that point, Garber said he recently met with officials from other top professional leagues, including the Premier League and the Bundesliga, among others, so that they could unify and have a “stronger voice and more influence at FIFA.”
For now, though, Garber is preparing for Sunday's title match in Columbus and sees the marquee event, which will be seen live in more than 140 countries, as another opportunity to reflect on how far the league has come and where it's going, no matter what's going on internationally.
“We’ll celebrate the best of our league and the best of our sport in this country,” Garber said. “And nothing is going to diminish our excitement with our 20th MLS Cup and our celebration of where we’ve been for the last 20 years.”