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MLS Commissioner Don Garber Quote Sheet: 2023 MLS State of the League

MLS Commissioner Don Garber's Quote Sheet from the 2023 MLS State of the League can be downloaded HERE and is available below.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber

2023 MLS State of the League Quote Sheet

December 8, 2023

Opening statement:

This 2023 MLS Cup between the Columbus Crew and LAFC is a terrific and very fitting matchup and it's capping off an epic, epic year for our league.

It's great to be back in Columbus. Soccer here in the city and in this region and in this state has such a great history. There's so much momentum and there's so much promise for our future.

In the last few years, we've seen the Crew win MLS Cup in 2020 and the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Cup. Field, this beautiful facility that we're all in today, is one of the great soccer stadiums in our league.

The Crew had 19 sellouts this year alone and hosted countless big domestic and international soccer events. Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium ever built in our country, has been totally repurposed as the Ohio Health Performance Center.

A heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Jimmy and Dee Haslem and Pete Edwards and Whitney [Johnson], here in the front row. Together, with the support of the city, their partners, fans, and the community, the Columbus Crew is one of the great stories in our league history.

LAFC is back to defend their first MLS Cup. MLS has not had back-to-back champions since the LA Galaxy, which was over 10 years ago.

Our two teams in Los Angeles have built a passionate rivalry that stands with some of the best in our game -- Manchester City and Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Boca Juniors and River Plate. Any LAFC game is a must-see and must-attend experience. The club has achieved a rare standard of excellence since joining MLS six years ago.

I want to thank and congratulate their very committed and passionate ownership group led by Bennett Rosenthal, Larry Berg, and Brandon Beck, along with their staff, coaches, players, and fans.

As we wrap our 28th season, I want to take a few minutes and reflect on what's been a transformational year for our league.

It began with the launch of our exciting new partnership with Apple and MLS Season Pass. In a matter of months, in just a few short months after the announcement, we literally created a production entity to bring over 1,000 MLS, MLS NEXT Pro, and MLS NEXT matches in English and Spanish, along with thousands of hours of club and player-specific content. It was an unprecedented undertaking. We have some of our talent here in the room with us today.

Every game in over a thousand countries around the world on any device with no restrictions. Fan response was very exciting and very positive. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a recent earnings call, MLS Season Pass over-delivered on all of our expectations.

This is just the beginning of a long-term partnership with the most innovative and important company in the world. We look forward to continuing to grow and evolve together in the years to come. We have some Apple executives here with us today, and I want to say thank you to you guys.

As you know, it was another important expansion year. It's hard to imagine that St. Louis, one of the founding cities for soccer in our country, didn't have an MLS team. Hard to believe all of that happened before this year.

We worked for many years to put together the right ownership group with the right stadium project, and we hit the jackpot.

Led by the Taylor family and CEO Carolyn Kindle, along with Jim Kavanaugh, they managed one of the best expansion-team launches in MLS history and, in our view, if not for the history or in the history of all of professional sports.

They built an incredible stadium and development center. They sold out every game. They finished with the second-highest points of any expansion club in our history.

St. Louis CITY set an entirely new bar for our next expansion team, which will come in 2025, San Diego FC, a great project and partnership with one of Egypt's most respected businessmen Mohamed Mansour, along with the Sycuan Native American tribe and the Right to Dream Academy. Stay tuned; there will be more news on that front in the months to come.

Earlier this year, we announced the extension of our long-term partnership with adidas, one of the most influential and important consumer-focused companies in our sport anywhere in the world. This renewal, along with the renewals of our other long-term partners, the presenter of our Cup and our playoffs Audi, AT&T, Captain Morgan, and The Home Depot.

These renewals are indicative of how our league is delivering real value to the commercial community.

Once again, fans came out in record numbers this season. It started with two crowds of nearly 70,000 on our opening weekend and included an all-time high of nearly 83,000 on July 4th, a rescheduled match at the Rose Bowl for El Tráfico, the rivalry match between the LA Galaxy and LAFC. Including this game on Saturday, a league record of nearly 12 million fans have attended MLS matches this year.

We also set record highs for digital and social media engagement and merchandise sales. Thanks to our global audience on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV and our continued partnership with Fox, who will also be broadcasting this game along with TSN and RDS, and our great partnership with Univision, more fans watch MLS games here and around the world than ever before.

Then, during what was shaping up to be the most successful season in our history, the greatest player to ever play the game made MLS his league of choice and joined Inter Miami. Lionel Messi had many options for the next chapter of his iconic soccer-playing career. The magnitude of his decision to join MLS cannot be overstated. A World Cup champion and eight-time Ballon d'Or winner, he's playing in our league.

We're now not just part of the global conversation of sports, but one of the biggest stories in the world, and certainly one of the biggest stories this summer.

The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer, because the best player to ever play the game is here and he's succeeding. Like all of history's iconic athletes, Messi delivered in ways that few could have really imagined.

There's only a handful of players who forever will be remembered as transforming a sport and delivering outside an arena. It's fair to say that Leo's game-winning free kick in Inter Miami's Leagues Cup match will go down as one of the great moments in our history.

Speaking of Leagues Cup, where Leo scored that goal, we've been working on an in-season tournament with Liga MX for several years. Our ambition was to produce something that's never been created for any league in any sport, pausing the regular season of two cross-border leagues for a meaningful competition with real stakes on the line.

Leagues Cup was a smashing success on every measure and, as so many things this year, went on to exceed so many of our expectations. It's only the beginning. This is a tournament that will continue to grow in scale, in scope, and in reach in the years ahead.

Importantly, one of the most valuable sporting developments over the past few years has been our continued investment in and the success of MLS NEXT, MLS NEXT Pro, and MLS GO. Our commitment to the MLS player pathway is one of our biggest priorities. We now have a firmly established development pyramid that mirrors the most important and valuable development systems around the world.

MLS NEXT is the most elite player-development experience in North America and includes all of our academies in the top elite youth clubs in our country. There are currently 143 Elite clubs playing in MLS NEXT with over 700 teams and over 15,000 players in that system.

MLS NEXT Pro provides our best young players with a platform to prove that they're ready to play at the next level, whether that be for their home club, whether it's for clubs abroad, or it's for our national teams.

Next year, there will be 29 MLS NEXT Pro teams with several independent clubs. We have an ambitious plan to bring pro soccer to dozens of new markets in the years ahead with teams in Carolina, Chattanooga, Cleveland, and Jacksonville coming onboard very soon.

All of this is paying dividends. Aidan Morris, Patrick Schulte and Mo Farsi right here are shining examples of how the system worked for the Columbus Crew. Keep an eye on Miami's Benjamin Cremaschi, John Tolkin of the Red Bulls, and Atlanta's Caleb Wiley, all great examples of players who have come through our pyramid.

I want to take a moment to thank our nearly 800 players and the MLSPA for their collaborative efforts in working with us to build a league and a sport and for supporting our communities that all of us can be proud of.

We can't thank them enough for the work that they do for being inclusive and for helping to build a diverse league, including just yesterday – a great second step for our MLS ADVANCE program, a program that we have to develop underrepresented candidates for roles on the technical side and the business side to be employed throughout our ecosystem.

Looking forward, there's so much for us to be excited about. We're going to build on a second season with Apple and MLS Season Pass. We have Copa America coming in next season. The draw was last night. It will be the second year for Leagues Cup.

In 2025 we'll have a debut of our new team in San Diego. The CONCACAF Gold Cup will take place that summer, as well as the FIFA Club World Cup.

Of course, all of us in the soccer ecosystem could not be more excited about the World Cup coming here to North America in 2026. For the next few years, North America will be the epicenter for the beautiful game.

It begins soon. An all-time record 10 MLS teams will be competing in early February in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The 2024 MLS season will begin in late February and the complete 2024 schedule will be announced on Wednesday, December 20th.

Thanks again for joining us for MLS Cup. We are excited for the big game tomorrow. We’re ready for some questions.

Q. You've detailed a lot of the triumphs of the league and the profile where the league is now. Where do you think MLS sits in the worldwide context of soccer excellence or play that you're providing?

DON GARBER: The best thing I can say is that our goal is always to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world, to be part of the global conversation.

That's the quality of our play on the field. It's the incredible facilities we have. It's the strength and commitment of our ownership group, and it's the process in which we're managing the overall growth and value of the league so that it can continue to have momentum in the years to come.

If you were to ask the question as to where MLS fits and you asked that question in Europe, they would say that they look at us with admiration on all those measures.

We will continue to evolve every aspect of our league, both on the field and off the field. No different than any other league that is 27 years old as opposed to 100 years old, I think our best days, both on and off the field, are still ahead of us.

Q. This season, with the addition of the Leagues Cup among others, teams have played a record number of games. Saturday's game will be the 53rd for LAFC. While Houston and RSL have played more than 45 [games]. Having gone through that this season, players and coaches complain about the fixture crunch. Are you considering anything to do with roster size, maybe more allocation money, maybe a fourth DP to help alleviate some of that strain?

DON GARBER: I think the biggest challenge of any soccer league around the world is managing a schedule, and unlike every league here in North America, we don't control that schedule entirely.

Our playoffs are an example of that, having [World Cup] qualifying come in the middle of our playoffs. I'm one of the founders of the World Leagues Forum. We sit with 45 different leagues around the world. The subject at every meeting is, how do we manage the calendar, so, this is a complicated and challenging issue. I encourage anyone who wants to sit down with the guy who manages our schedule, who is kind of like a mad scientist, and see how you fit in managing a domestic schedule, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, with qualifying, with the Club World Cup and everything else. It's a unique dynamic.

Not every team is affected the same way. You mentioned Houston and the difference [of games] between Houston and a team that might not have qualified for the playoffs.

We also deal with some teams that are not playing enough games and some teams in the view of coaches are playing too many games, and how do we manage that in a thoughtful environment?

The best thing I could say is the league has been able to evolve through all of the changes that have come to us, like the Club World Cup in an expanded format, like Copa America taking place here next summer.

We'll adapt and figure out the right way to change. Whether that's roster changes or participation in some tournaments and not others, or whether it's ways that we could manage the schedule to give those teams that have more schedule congestion an opportunity to have a bit more time in between games.

There's no easy answer to it, but you should know we spend as much time as you and our fans on social media spend [speaking about it] and our coaches think about it.

Q. Along those lines, specifically about this upcoming season, you have Leagues Cup again. Copa America is going to be a big event on U.S. soil. Do you take breaks for these? Can you afford to take breaks for these? You're going to have to, of course, face this issue again in 2025, and with the World Cup in 2026. Can the league afford to shut down for periods of time in order to accommodate everything?

DON GARBER: Let me say, we can't afford it. So that's a message for everybody. If we have to shut the league down, lose games, it impacts our players. It impacts our partners. It impacts our fans. It impacts everything that MLS has to deliver for all of our stakeholders.

We've got to manage through that process and be clever and creative and figure out how to reconfigure the schedule with all these different events so that we can make it work.

Clearly the World Cup in 2026 is an entirely different animal. I can't imagine we're going to be playing games during the World Cup. But the economic impact of that is significant.

Can we change the schedule format? Can we look at Apertura and Clausura? Can we reconfigure the Leagues Cup? Can we figure out ways that the competition exists differently in terms of how our teams play each other so that we can manage travel and rest?

The one thing I say to everybody internally when we have these discussions, is to remember that this is the largest soccer league in the world, by far. We play in the largest market in the world, by far. We have multiple weather changes, dealing with game disruption and the rescheduling of games more than any other league.

Our players travel more than any players in any league around the world. All of that, I think, for everybody listening here, needs to be processed to think and understand how complicated all this is.

This is just one of the many complicated things that this league manages through. Through all of the challenges, through all of the opportunity, we still are able to come, be in a beautiful building [ Field], have a great event like the one we're going to have tomorrow, have a great partnership with the most advanced company in the world, have our players earn more, have a better living, have more infrastructure -- build all of those things with all of the pressures, both domestically and internationally, I think it speaks to the commitment of everybody, including media that believe in our league.

Q. Are there plans to add a fourth DP (Designated Player) for next season?  Additionally, an expansion question, if I may. Beyond San Diego, are there other plans for expansion moving forward, and how might Sacramento fit into those plans?

DON GARBER: There are no plans to add a fourth DP. There will be announcements coming out of our board meeting which is next week, and we'll have press availability after that with a number of exciting things that we're doing that our folks are focused on. There will be some exciting things that we're going to announce next week.

All of that needs to go to the group of owners and inform them and have that approved. But there are no plans for a fourth DP.

On the expansion front, I've been doing this a long time, and we never thought the league would be as large as it is today.

There are cities where we are in, where we never thought would be able to have an MLS team, build facilities, build the pyramid and attract the kind of fan base that we have in local markets.

San Diego is a good example of that. You might remember many, many years ago the league -- it was before my time at an All-Star Game in San Diego -- I don't think that was the high moment in MLS history.

Here we are in a market that couldn't be more excited about MLS.

We have no plans to go beyond 30 teams at this point. I will say we never say never to anything. We've got to look at how all this develops over the next number of years. If expansion makes sense at the right time, if there's a market with a facility and the opportunity for us to manage the competitive format and everything related to that, then we'll certainly consider it.

Q. We have a very big final happening here in Columbus tomorrow, but there's also another final with the NBA In-Season Tournament with the Pacers playing the Lakers. You launched the Leagues Cup, which is your own in-season tournament, and spoke about what the learnings were in year one. Could you speak a little more to what those learnings were and if there's any changes planned for year two?

DON GARBER: Sure. We're proud of the fact that Leagues Cup was launched in a smaller format several years ago and it was a large, full-league competition with Liga MX this year. The concept of an in-season tournament is something that we're proud of being the first (professional men’s) league to actually launch this year.

It brought with it enormous opportunity and value, and we couldn't be more excited about the ratings and all the folks that attended and supported our clubs in that tournament, both those who were supportive of our teams and the Liga MX teams. Y

We have to work through some changes to that tournament that we're working with Liga MX on, that will make it even better. Should we be thinking about a schedule that will be more productive, if you will, for some of those Liga MX teams, that will reduce some of their travel? Are there ways for us to think about how that tournament could elevate itself and have even more of an exclusive window of promotion and marketing opportunity, which means building on our relationship with Apple and some of the sponsors of that tournament?

The good news is it's year one of a partnership. It's not like we just said we are going to do this for a couple of years. This will go on. We'll continue to work with the Mexican League to make it even better.

Q. There are older franchises that might not be filling stadiums as you'd like. How could they find a way to get back to maybe how the newer clubs are doing?

DON GARBER: It's easier to be new than to be new and improved. That's a statement about all businesses, and probably a statement about life.

We're proud this year, and you all probably know this, even those teams that were struggling at the gate years ago did really well this year. Look at where we were in Dallas as a good example of that. Our schedule changed dramatically.

We have most of our games on Saturday and Wednesday nights. There's a reduction in the number of game dates, thanks to our partnership with Apple, all of which are making it easier for our fans to attend our games.

When some of our teams that are legacy teams look at what's going on here in Columbus, they look at what's happening in St. Louis, or they look at what's going on in Cincinnati, they look at what's going on in Nashville, and they say there's no reason why those markets can be delivering a product and a fan experience that is driving that level of fan passion and we are not.

We have formed a group that's working with all our teams to drive what we call "club performance." We hired a guy (Chris McGowan) that's one of the most experienced executives in sports. He's probably one of the few executives that has worked for all five of the major leagues (in North America), and we're seeing results that have been dramatic.

I want to really give a real pat on the back to Houston, who are much, much better than they were years ago. Dallas, what the Hunt family have done, has been remarkable.

We look at some of the growth and success and we feel really good about that.

Q. In terms of the playoffs format this season, the Best-of-3 [Series], how did you feel that went? Is that something that you're going to stick with? You mentioned the schedule being tight. U.S. Open Cup, you've made comments in the past that maybe you're not entirely happy with that competition. Are you looking at MLS skipping the U.S. Open Cup?

DON GARBER: I'll start with the U.S. Open Cup. I made those comments because I believe if we're going to have our professional teams competing in a tournament -- that is the oldest tournament of its type anywhere in the country -- we all need to embrace it, from our federation to our respective leagues, and give it the profile and the support it needs. If we can't do that then we should meet and decide that there needs to be a new plan.

I will say that I'm pleased that our Competition group and U.S. Soccer have been working together since that last U.S. Soccer board meeting on ways to evolve the U.S. Open Cup so that it can be more valuable to everybody.

That process is ongoing. There might be changes to our participation sometime in the future. There's nothing that we can announce right now. I want to thank the federation, whether it's the CEO, JT Batson, or it's the group that supports it from a committee perspective to actually start saying, “hey, this is ours. Let's try to make it better.”

On the first one question [regarding the playoff format], we have been, as a league, constantly working at ways to evolve our format. Part of that is driven by a calendar which changes often.  Also, part of it, as the league expands, is how do we create a playoff format that's going to deliver the most value for our fans?

We love the [playoff] format. We had more teams have home games than in the last go-around. Our attendance was up. Our ratings were up. There were more teams towards the end that were performing their best during the regular season. When you look at all the things that you use to evaluate a playoff format, we checked all those boxes.

Like everything else, you can be assured that we're going to sit down with our committee in February and ask if there are things we should look at, whether it's next year or in years to come, to continue to evolve it. We thought it was a great success.

Q. Leo Messi brought a lot of new eyeballs to MLS last year. As you said, the eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer. However, his contract is up at the end of the 2025 season. When he goes, some of those new eyeballs may go, too. How can the league maximize how many of those fans stick around once Messi is gone? Do you think it's possible to take full advantage of this moment in time with Messi and the World Cup and the Copa America and everything else without significant changes to your league's roster rules?

DON GARBER: The answer is we have to look at it all, including our roster rules to ensure that with a growing audience we can capture the support and the attention of a whole new audience of soccer fans. That's ultimately the process that we're going through now.

Our group is very, very focused and has been for decades on constantly looking at whether the system that we have in place is the right system and whether we can evolve it or tweak it in ways to ensure that we're capturing the market.

I wouldn't say that the market is about the timing of when Messi leaves the league; it's really, what do we want to be by 2027?

We're going to have the eyes of the world on us. The soccer market here in the United States is going to be exposed to the entire global soccer and football community. That is the pressure that we're under to ensure, as everybody's paying attention to us, what is the product that we can deliver?

That product is not just the players that we have on the field. It's fan experience. It's everything around that. It's the competition itself and the competition format. All those things are part of the evaluation process.

First, I hope Lionel decides to stay longer than 2025. Maybe 2025 isn't the deadline, but our plan is focused on being the league we want to be in 2027, which gives us enough time to continue to do the research, speak to our fans, evaluate what the impact is on some of these changes and then be able to move forward in a positive and productive way.

Q. With the Apple deal, there hasn't been a lot of transparency around the numbers of folks watching. I'd love to get your thoughts on, a year into this deal, whether you feel there's more eyeballs on MLS from a viewership perspective than there were under the previous linear deals that you guys had. How would you sort of assess that?

DON GARBER: The best way to describe what you're calling "transparency" is, remember, this is the first year that any media entity has ever produced and delivered a global broadcast (for a professional sports league). (with our partners) We will need to collectively understand what's the best way to measure. Everybody wants to know what exactly does that mean? Comparing a regional broadcast to a global broadcast is not an easy formula to be able to put together.

You've heard (Apple SVP of Services) Eddy Cue say when he was in Miami (at the Soccerex conference in November) that we had over a million people watch multiple games this year.   

What we're focused on is the number of subscriptions we're selling, the amount of time that those people who are watching those games in front of and behind the pay wall are spending on our broadcast, how are they engaging with that content, and what the viewer demographic is of that content? All of those things are items that we and Apple have to work together on so that we can, at the right time, communicate if all of this is working for us and is it working for Apple?

What I will say is when you have the CEO of the company saying it's over-delivered on his expectations, you can imagine that we're delivering on the numbers of people that are engaging in ways more than we thought. I think that's a positive.

This is a long-term partnership. We're going to get there in time. Together we have to work on figuring out what those metrics are and then we'll figure out how to communicate the information.

Q. Since Messi's arrival, teams that hosted Inter Miami sold out their stadiums, recorded soaring revenues, and added sponsors. They took full advantage of his presence in the league and during Leagues Cup. In 2024 how are you prioritizing who is getting advantage to have him at their home stadiums?

DON GARBER: Good question. It's a little bit of an inside story. Obviously, we have a competitive format where X number of games within conference are played, and then we have a certain number of games that are played out of conference. You saw some of them. The LAFC game is an example of that.

What we try to do is have logic to that as opposed to picking those games that everyone thinks are just going to grow the popularity and audience around those particular (Inter Miami) away matches.

We don't think that's fair. We think we need to have some rationale to that. How many times has a team played against Miami? How many times have teams and their fans seen Miami on the road? We're looking at that format and then figuring out a way – you'll see when we announce our schedule – that we can have those four or five games spread over for X number of teams in 2024 and X number of teams in 2025 so that as many of our Western Conference teams can see Lionel Messi at home.

The best way to answer that is formulaic. It's not sitting around and just using our judgment as to what we think are going to be the best home matches for Messi’s away games.

Q. We've seen teams start to release their season ticket packages for next year and the Inter Miami game is either not included in those packages or it's separate and more money. At the same time, Inter Miami season ticket prices have increased a lot. Teams are going to want to capitalize on Messi's presence, but is there any concern that maybe the average fan is going to get priced out of the chance to see Messi and is there anything that can be done about that?

DON GARBER: In our business, the concept of selling mini packs that have certain teams that a home fan might want to see and pricing those differently – that is variable pricing -- is part of the pro sports. Every other league does it.

I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be appropriate for Major League Soccer to do that. I think the question as to whether or not fans are being priced out of experiencing a Lionel Messi game, I don't believe that's true.

In the actual market where teams are selling tickets, those tickets are still reasonable. We can't control what happens on the secondary market. As you know, the secondary market pricing has been very high. I think it speaks to the unique experience of watching Lionel Messi live, but I know that our tickets are amongst the most affordable in all of professional sports, and I'm proud of that.

Q. We've been talking about the New England Revolution working on building a stadium in Boston. However, they were ranked eighth in attendance this year and they're expecting to average 28,000 fans next year per game. I’m wondering what do you make of that? Can the Revolution be considered an exception to the rule – a successful team playing in an NFL stadium outside the city center?

DON GARBER: Remember, the Revolution were a legacy team. Playing in Gillette (Stadium) and other football stadiums in the early days was the plan. When the league was launched nobody conceived soccer-specific stadiums. The Revolution did a good job. This year attendance was up. Their team performed well and ultimately, Jonathan Kraft is probably the most engaged owner we have on a board level and a committee level in our entire league. They're committed to building a stadium.

They've been very focused on a particular site. That site had a setback. We hope that site can get back on track. There's no doubt in my mind if they can get a stadium project done, that will be one of the great soccer markets in our league. It's one of the great sports towns in our country, if not in the world. I have no doubt, with the stadium, it will be even better than it is today.

One thing is these projects take a long time. We never thought that we would be where we are here today with many of our stadium projects. Miami is another example of that. New York City is the best example of that. It will be more than 10 years from the time that the team was launched until we had a stadium deal announced. This is a long-term project. I have no doubt at some point the city and all those people who really want men's professional soccer to succeed at the highest level will get together with the Krafts and figure out a solution that's better than where they are today.

Q. You've talked a couple times here about how the eyes of the world are on this league now. A lot of the eyes are new to MLS, and one of the questions is why are there so many roster rules? Each of them has a justification. Some of them are from the present. Some of them have been around for a long time. Is there a point where, in the aggregate, there are too many, especially as this league tries to pursue more big-time talent to join Messi in this league?

DON GARBER: The rules are in place to manage the strategic investment that our owners and teams have in delivering a product on the field that can capture all the attention that we're looking for, locally and now globally.

These decisions that we make – the Designated Players outside the salary budget and our teams having the opportunity to invest discretionarily in certain types of players -- are all part of a strategic plan to ensure we're effective and efficient in how we're building our rosters.

The time will come when we no longer need to segment our spending, not necessarily to provide more freedom, but because all of the objectives that we were looking to achieve with all these strategic initiatives will have been achieved. Therefore, we could move in a different direction. I think you'll start seeing in the years ahead some streamlining of those rules.

I will tell you it has really been working for us up until now and the reason to change it is because we'll no longer need it. When that time comes, I can assure you the league office, all our clubs, and our fans will look at it as a new day.

Q. What have you made of the Professional Referee Organization’s (PRO) performance this year and the quality of officiating on the field? It has been a talking point in the playoffs and obviously with multiple instances this postseason. You had a player entering the referee changing room and with the comments Vanni Sartini made. Do you think there's an issue of referee safety in the league and is the league trying to address it at all?

DON GARBER: Let me start by saying that the safety of our fans, players, and officials is a massive priority for our league and it should be a priority for everyone – whether it's those people who have to make decisions about rules and regulations or discipline when those rules are violated, or those who are responsible for behaving in a way that could either threaten the safety of others or who might be thinking of doing that.

Those are not easy things for those who have to make those decisions to manage, but I want to say to everybody, it is a paramount position that all of us as leaders of this league need to be very thoughtful about.

We have never had a player enter the (referees) locker room in the history of our league, and a player entered a locker room this year. That's not taking away anything from the character of the player. There are sometimes when passion gets the best of people, but that can't be tolerated. Ultimately, it was a tough price to pay, but we need to tell every player and every team administrator, they cannot go into an officials' locker room and do anything that might appear or might be perceived by an official as being threatening to them, whether it was intended or not.

I believe that PRO has performed well. I say this in a way that can lighten up the room a little bit – it's a tough job. I'm not quite sure why anybody signs up for it, but those men and women are committed. They are incredible professionals who are performing at the highest level.  We're investing deeply to ensure that we are assessing them properly, training them properly and organizing their development in ways that I think will make PRO officials even better. I'm proud of the fact that we had many PRO officials officiating at both the men’s and women’s World Cup finals.

I don't think that our officials are being positioned properly. With that being said, I get more calls from owners, I receive more hate mail from fans, and I'm certainly not getting love letters from a lot of our coaches when something happens that they don't like. That's the nature of the game, and we're going to deal with it in ways like we have when somebody steps over the line.

Q. You opened the press conference by congratulating the Haslem and Edwards families on hosting the MLS Cup in a stadium they recently built. Next month is the five-year anniversary of when they bought the Crew following the ‘Save the Crew’ movement and the decision to eventually award an expansion franchise to Anthony Precourt in Austin – another club that has made a Conference Final since launching. What lessons have you learned over those last five years and reflecting on that process, what was so important to get the calculus right?

DON GARBER: As you can imagine, particularly when you're here, you're reflecting on that a lot – whether it's me in my office or it's all the folks that have worked together, managing through all of the challenges that we went through to get to that announcement five years ago and to get to where we are today.

I believe that life always delivers you real challenges and real tests to your character and your beliefs, and how we manage through all of those and have the courage to deal with difficult issues is what defines us professionally and personally.

That was not a fun time for anyone, but we had said from the very beginning that if we're thoughtful and if we have patience, we will get through this and there will be a good outcome.

Now, going through that process was not one that I would hope to ever have to go through again. However, when I look at where we are today, we have a stadium that's one of the best soccer stadiums in our league, if not the best soccer stadium of its size in the world. We have a team that's performed incredibly well. We have many of fans who now have more to engage with and cheer for. We have more sponsors for the team than we had before. We have more political and municipal support than we've had before, and we have an ownership commitment that is at the highest level.

If we had to go through that again and end where we are today, then I would go through it again. I will say though – it's probably not the most popular thing to say in Columbus – we are really proud of what is going on in Austin. They've done a good job. They built a great stadium. They've got a successful team, and they're being part of this global movement of trying to show what Major League Soccer can be in markets, even when you've got to go through some trauma to get there.

Q. With the mid-season shutdown that will have to happen with the FIFA World Cup in 2026, will you consider this an opportunity to reconfigure the schedule to make it a summer and spring calendar for which there are a lot of benefits such as aligning the transfer windows with Europe and also creating a long runway to finish the playoffs without the break of a transfer window that obviously supplies the momentum that now takes place?

DON GARBER: We have to look at everything, but we also have to realize –we've had this conversation with CONCACAF and FIFA and we've had that conversation internally – we are weather constrained. We have to figure out a right way to manage that.

Now, are there creative and unique ways to manage through that? Should we be thinking about playing in a single destination for a period of time during the winter months when you can't play necessarily in Toronto or Kansas City or Chicago or New York or Boston – who knows? Maybe that might be the answer.

What I will say is we have to look at everything to ensure that we cannot lose games in our schedule and be able to have a schedule that works for our players and for our fans. That's the tough work that our schedule group, our commercial group, and our ownership will work on to finalize a format for 2026.

Q. There were several incidents this season of players using racist slurs on the field. It seemed like there had been a period of time where there hadn't been reports of that happening, and then the last few years it seems to have seen an uptick of sorts. I'm wondering if the league is looking at new education policies or setting different standards to hopefully prevent incidents like this from happening in the future or to try and make the field of play more inclusive and more welcoming to everyone regardless of identity?

DON GARBER: I think it does play in many ways off a previous question. It starts with discipline isn't the answer to change behavior in this case. Education is. I'm proud of the work that (MLS EVP) Sola Winley, his staff, and (MLS SVP) Jamil Northcutt have been doing with Black Players for Change (BPC) to come up with a way that we can educate our players properly and make the commitment and resources to go player by player and club by club to ensure that we're entirely eradicating any offenses of any type of abuse, particularly racial abuse, of our players.

The challenge that we are faced with is, when they do occur, what's the best approach for the league to ensure that we're managing it in a way that is in the best interests of our player pool? Because this is an issue amongst our players.

And I have to give our union credit and the BPC credit for working closely with Sola and his team to come up with a process of restorative justice where those players who are offenders have an opportunity to understand the harm and hurt from their behavior, and then go through an education process so that they could understand why that's a problem. Ultimately, (this will help with) ensuring that we could eradicate it from our fields.

I will say that we are dealing in a world where more and more of these issues are happening both in the workplace and outside the workplace. It concerns me as a citizen of the world. It concerns me as a leader of a business. It certainly concerns me as a leader of a diverse professional sports league. It's a huge commitment from the league office, our owners, our league staff, and I will say also of our players. I think you're going to see improvement on that front in the years ahead.