It was 20 years ago on August 4 that Don Garber was named the Commissioner of Major League Soccer.
A league that had 12 teams in just its fourth year in 1999 has since been transformed, doubling in size to 24 teams with even more expansion on the horizon. Many of those teams play in their own stadiums with the average attendance among the top 10 soccer leagues in the world, that number having grown 55 percent during Garber’s tenure.
How it happened
It all started when Garber was approached by Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft, owners of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution, during an NFL owners meeting at the Super Bowl, about becoming MLS commissioner.
Garber was senior vice president of the NFL’s international division when he was hired.
“When Don first became commissioner and when we went through those dark days, there was always the question of: Is the league going to survive? I don’t think that’s remotely a question today,” Jonathan Kraft told the Associated Press. “So that’s a huge jump in a very short period of time.”
While there is clear upward mobility in his 20th year, there were some rocky moments early for Garber, particularly his introductory press conference in New York.
“I could remember like it was yesterday the opening press conference in New York and the reaction, much of it negative, to me taking the job,” Garber told the AP. “I expected when I took the job that the soccer community would be excited about a young, experienced sports marketing executive coming over and taking over this fledgling soccer league. I realized quickly that soccer is a unique sport and it took a while to really earn the credibility and the respect of all the constituents. I remember walking home from that press conference and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I get myself into?’”
Under Garber’s guidance, there’s been a number of positive changes:
More owners, more investment
Since Garber took the helm, 25 owners have entered the league and since 2015 no owner has had an investment in more than one team.
In 2003, three owners were invested in 10 teams.
“I'm very proud of the commitment of our ownership to really believe in the future of our league and to build relevance around their clubs and to invest deeply in the product on the field, but also to get involved personally,” Garber told ESPN. “So I think one of my legacies will be to build the ownership group that exists today that so believe in MLS and the sport of soccer in America and really love the game.”
That's not to say every ownership group brought the desired impact and result, as Garber told the New York Times.
"The rush to Chivas U.S.A. in 2005 was not the best idea," he said. "We thought by having a Mexican team’s brand in L.A., we’d have fans and it turned out not to be true."
Allianz Field in St. Paul is just the latest, but during Garber’s time stadiums have sprouted up in Washington D.C., Houston, San Jose, Harrison and Orlando, just to name a few.
But Garber said the first one — the facility now known as Dignity Heath Sports Complex in Carson, California, home of the LA Galaxy — was a specific highlight for him when it opened in 2003.
“We've created a legitimate foundation for the sport from a facility perspective with now 27 stadiums opening up,” Garber told ESPN, including in his count a minimum of seven new stadiums that will open in the coming years. “The thought of investing billions and billions and billions of dollars in building cathedrals for our players and fans was absolutely the furthest thing from our mind in the early days. So I am very proud of the fact that those stadiums will stand the test of time and will be a part of one of the significant chapters in the book that will be written about MLS decades from now.”
Building a relationship with Liga MX
A sporting rivalry that started on the international stage between the United States and Mexico national teams continues in the Concacaf Champions League between MLS and Liga LX clubs. But so too is the communication between the leagues, which includes a joint venture in the Campeones Cup, Leagues Cup and the possibility of more collaboration in the future.
“This starts with a very, very close relationship that both MLS and Liga MX have with Concacaf,” Garber told ESPN. “Both leagues are committed to the Concacaf Champions League, so we need to figure out where does [Leagues Cup] fit with the CCL and how could we work as a confederation with two strong leagues and a number of emerging leagues, how can we work together to make our confederation stronger and more competitive with the other confederations around the world.”
League of the future
While a 20th anniversary is often a time for reflection and there will be plenty of discussion over Garber's legacy. On the other hand, he signed a five-year contract extension in February, meaning he has plenty more time to help shape the future of the league. So, where does he see the league in 20 years?
“I have no doubt that we will be one of the top leagues in the world on the competitive side and also in business metrics,” Garber told Yahoo! Sports “If you look at the amount of energy that the rest of the football world is placing on our market, there’s no doubt that we just need to continue to build strong fan bases, continue to invest in player development and our facilities. And we need to continue to grow the league throughout North America.”