This past weekend in Austin, MLS hit SXSW in a big way: with a candid, free-ranging panel featuring MLS Commissioner Don Garber this past Saturday. Veteran soccer journalist Grant Wahl interviewed Garber for about 45 minutes, before, in typical SXSW style, opening the floor for audience questions. Over a full hour, Garber touched on everything from MLS expansion, to video-assisted refereeing, to the prospects of the U.S. hosting or co-hosting the 2026 World Cup.
To kick things off, Wahl first asked about how MLS, through its partner Univision, will live-stream more than 20 matches on Facebook this season. This came, in part, Garber said, from the league asking, “How can we get our games on as many platforms as possible?” He also noted that this move allows “Facebook to [get] its toe deeper in the water” of broadcasting — something that could become important when MLS looks to re-negotiate broadcast rights in 2022.
Wahl also asked Garber early in the session about VAR, the video assistance system for referees that MLS test drove in the pre-season, and is scheduled to bring out for regular-season matches after the All-Star Game. The Commissioner said he is excited for the innovation. While he is optimistic that the process of video review on key plays won’t disrupt the rhythm of matches, he’s also anticipating some growing pains as MLS referees and fans become accustomed to how VAR will work within FIFA guidelines.
Naturally, then, with two new teams playing in the 2017 season, the conversation moved to expansion and MLS’ growth. Some 12 cities have applied for the next round of expansion, and Garber said he believes that all of them boast a pretty strong chance.
“I feel like all 12 of the cities would be successful,” Garber he said, adding that he wouldn’t have made that assertion even a few years ago. He pointed to Atlanta United’s season ticket sales before 2017, as well as fan rallies in cities like Sacramento aspiring to join MLS. He also pointed out another key piece of evidence: the enthusiasm of a number of U.S. Conference of Mayors attendees in Austin, with whom Garber spoke hours before the SXSW session.
During the Q&A part of the panel, one audience member asked the Commissioner about the speed of the league’s growth. Garber replied that the quality of play has gone up with the league’s recent expansion teams, and believes that as the league gets more and more attractive, that MLS will be able to tap into a global pool of players. “I don’t worry about dilution, I worry about distraction,” he said, explaining that he wants to grow deliberately enough to develop the business talent and coaching talent needed to best manage the player talent and ensure the teams’ viability.
So with the domestic league growing, what about the potential North American World Cup bid for 2026? Garber said he expected the US will either make a bid on its own, or partner with Canada and Mexico for a joint bid. “I was involved with the efforts in 2010 to bring the World Cup here for ’22, and was incredibly frustrated by the result,” he said, before noting that FIFA’s recently given the impression that it will be CONCACAF’s turn to host in ’26.
Overall, what about his proudest recent moments? Seeing Orlando fans unveil their home-opener tifo declaring their new stadium “A Gift From the Gods,” and seeing Portland fans exultantly sing the national anthem, a sight which he says “always chokes [him] up.” He also pointed to his recent visit to the Philadelphia Union’s academy, heralding it as a model for developing the players from which both MLS and US Soccer could benefit in the future.