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Don Garber

A Bridge Too Far?


Don Garber’s comments this week in a meeting with journalists indicated that the league will be aggressively working to improve the quality of its product. But at what cost to the development of the American player will this be achieved?

Garber has stated the league is seriously considering adding another DP slot per team and more foreign player spots. I find this particularly disturbing considering most MLS teams have not used their first DP spot, and have continued the fiscal prudence that brought the league to this point.

The reason MLS is still in business and thriving in some markets is the smart but tough decisions the league made after ousting Doug Logan and Sunil Gulati both of whom had made signing marquee foreign players a priority. Don Garber led this turnaround on a slimmer, less formidable MLS from a playing standpoint, but a smarter MLS from a fiscal perspective.

I’ve often argued MLS’ top teams were better in 1999 than they are in 2009. But I have NEVER argued once that MLS was in better business shape ten years ago then today. MLS’ decision in the 2002 to 2006 time period to focus on home grown talent, while limiting expansion and foreign player signings reaped immense financial benefits. The shrewd management of Garber and Ivan Gazidis also yielded MLS for the first time a TV rights fee from a major network and its first ever profitable franchises.

Secondly, adding more foreign players in a domestic league may be great for the league’s business but it is not great for the US National Team. MLS was after all founded by Alan Rothenberg to promote the AMERICAN player and the AMERICAN game.

Two examples of this are front and center: Mexico and England. Mexico’s Primera Division is the best league in the Americas as far as competitiveness, and quality. But Mexico’s top teams, save Chivas of Guadalajara have become addicted to foreign players.  As Atlante closes in on the CONCACAF Champions League title, they could become the third successive side from Mexico to win the Continental title with foreign players filling most of the key roles on the side.

Mexico’s National Team at the same time has hit its worst patch since perhaps the early 1980s before the FMF was substantially reformed. El Tri has now even had to depend on naturalizing foreign players, something the US needed to do in the early and mid 1990s but has since avoided because we have developed our own excellent developmental infrastructure.

England’s problems speak for itself. In 1990, England’s clubs were just finishing a ban on European competition and the league itself was beset by problems of hooliganism. Some of England’s best players ditched the domestic league to play in Scotland or in Europe. Yet England had its best World Cup that was not held on English soil that year with a team made up largely of players developed at home as English football assessed itself internally and improved its national team.

But now with England’s league the most popular on the planet, and filled with foreign players, the Three Lions have struggled of late. It’s been so bad that England has had to often field players in a starting XI that do not feature for their club sides.

Is this really what we want to happen to our national team? MLS has been a important boon to our national team now for years, but its effectiveness developing players and feeding the national team player pool has already been affected by the jump to eight senior internationals two seasons ago in MLS and will continue to be detrimentally affected by an invasion of foreign players.

MLS needs to decide if it wants to be a global player in football or a good development league for American talent. I don’t think it can do both. If MLS wants to be top worldwide league, the salary cap will have to be eliminated, squad limits obliterated while transfer fees paid by the league for players reach into the billions.

Or MLS can return to its course of 2002-2006. Phase out the Designated Player rule, refocus on the American player, and reign in expansion.

Two divergent courses which cannot in my mind be reconciled. I know what my choice is, but ultimately it is up to Don Garber and the owners/investors in MLS to make the right choice.

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  1. Brazilian Fan

    May 4, 2009 at 2:28 am

    First of all: Mexican League is not the best league in Americas. If you dont watch the other leagues, so simply dont say anything. Its a insult to all the other countries and leagues, including US, say that the Mexican League is the best in Americas. They are not the best, not by far…

    Second: This is the best thing that someone writed here: “My suggestion is start paying more for top american and canadian talent, and stop spending stupid sums of money on foreigners. Turn the DP spot into a Domestic Designated Player…”

    Why spend so much money in DP? Why not bring all the american and canadian talent back home, paying a little bit more? Have a national talent playing in your league brings more attention than other players. I am Brazilian but i am sure that Altidore, Dempsey, Johnson, Adu, Beasley and other talents bring more fans to the games than Luciano Emilio, Fred and other foreigns. Its time to MLS and fans realize that the European way perhaps is not the better way.

    Think a little bit about, come on. Make the american soccer fans proud of their league. Dont have foreign talent, but national talent. Bring this players home, make the MLS be the place where the best american and canadian players play.

  2. Lars

    April 26, 2009 at 11:17 am


    Obviously Canadians play overseas, but little, if any, effort is made at bringing a Canadian back here. There are Canadians (like americans) languishing in 2nd division or on the bench of first division teams. But who does Mo go after? Englishmen usually, and now he’s added a pair of West Africans, but still no Canadians. We see the guys they pick in the Draft cut because they aren’t willing to put in the time or money to develop them further. It’s ridiculous.

    I’m well aware of the performance of TFC Academy and Whitecaps Residency in the Dallas Cup thank you. It only reinforces my belief that if Mo had the will to keep younger Canadians on his roster, the team would be better off.

  3. Footballer

    April 26, 2009 at 1:40 am

    International football and club football are two separate entities. Keep them separate. Like church and state.

    It is not the responsibility of domestic leagues to bolster any national teams. National federations should look to no one but themselves when trying to build a strong team.

  4. Lars

    April 25, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    My suggestion is start paying more for top american and canadian talent, and stop spending stupid sums of money on foreigners. Turn the DP spot into a Domestic Designated Player…

  5. Rebecca

    April 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Back when MLS started I was still living at home in Tampa, Florida and made it to Tampa Bay Mutiny games and loved them. I moved away due to job but to an area that didn’t have an MLS team. I was saddened when the Mutiny had to fold — still followed them, even if I couldn’t do it in person.

    I now live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, where there’s no MLS team to support, but have the Carolina Railhawks. I personally would find it even more exciting if the US went to a league table with relegation and all that would have teams everywhere connected, even if they aren’t MLS but possibly had the chance to be.

    Otherwise with not being in an MLS city, I find it a lot easier/more exciting to just focus on following international football, particularly Arsenal of whom I’m a fan (glad they have good English talent in Theo Walcott, and yes, it’s one but that’s better than none). I don’t know what the ultimate answer is for MLS, but like others have said, I don’t see why it has to be an either/or.

    And yes, the NASL with my hometown Tampa Bay Rowdies were quite a fun time.


    April 25, 2009 at 10:13 am

    MLS has to decide. I think Kartik is right- the Mexican and English leagues are commercial successes but their national team is in the shitter.

    I personally want to see MLS grow and if the national team misses a world cup or two we’ll still have some of the best club soccer ever. The NASL was a fun time, a better time than now.

  7. Gazza

    April 25, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Additionally we have the best hockey players in Canada because we invented the game, it is our national passion, and most places in the country winter is 8 months long. Sure we have a million registered players but if the league starts in June and ends in July ……

    The US has more players registered in soccer than football why don’t they develop better than the guys who will be drafted today in the NFL?

  8. Gazza

    April 25, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Lars – we have put money into development it just takes time. the TFC Academy started in the 2nd year of the franchise so it is exactly TWO years old. The Academy played at the Gen-Adidas Tourney last year and played well enough to earn a spot at this years Dallas Cup Super Group where we beat AC Milan. We are not like the Vancouver Whitecaps who have had a great residency program for a decade now. TFC has started will 16 to 18 year olds and willmove down from there.

    As for Canadians players on TFC, you do realize that a lot of Cdns are overseas making a lot more money right? And that MLS has a salary cap? And not all Canadians have their rights held by TFC? Sure we all wish Mo would have more Canucks but by the end of the season we will have 5 Cdn starters.

  9. eplnfl

    April 25, 2009 at 9:40 am

    I think Garber is on target. Should MLS help develop the American game and players. No doubt. Should the USL be charged with development of players as it’s primary mission seems so. Garber and above similar comments are correct that MLS is in the business of bringing soccer to the American public. The obligation is to bring the best the game has to offer to the paying fans. If MLS achieve’s it goal of bringing world class club football to the US then American Player development will be enhanced. Does the NBA worry about developing the American game. Not one second. They let others do the development for them. The arrival of foreign players in the NBA has only worked to increase their fan base and not hurt it.

  10. smokedgouda

    April 25, 2009 at 8:29 am

    The MLS and the USMNT both are improving talent-wise, so what’s the problem?

  11. Fred

    April 25, 2009 at 8:20 am

    I totally agree with this article and believe MLS is barking up the wrong tree. Either you fight hard to establish yourself as a top tier league or you stop over promoting and selling the product, and tell people “hey we are American, support the game.”

    MLS has over sold and under delivered since the 1998-2000 time frame Kartik refers to, and I simply do not think it’s realistic to expect the soccer snobs to pay attention because of a second DP and a doubling of the salary cap. You’d have to have five DPs and a cap of $10 million minus the DPs at a minimum to hook the crowd Garber is talking about.

    I agree the soccer specific stadium was a big part of MLS’ successful business model and that Kartik cleverly avoided that fact. But on the whole, I still agree with him. It’s disgraceful that with so many domestic players having to go to the USL, a second division for a pay increase that MLS is talking about bringing in more foreign players. It’s insulting actually.

  12. Sticky

    April 24, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Allowing MLS teams to sign more of the products of their youth systems would help. Why bother establishing a youth system in the first place if some other team is going to sign the players – maybe even a team from overseas? If both MLS and the US are bleeding talent, then at least make it more financially attractive for young players to sign with MLS. MLS teams can then sign these players, and if they turn out well, reap the transfer fees if they go to Europe.

    One of the unfortunate effects of players skipping over MLS for Euro leagues is that when they do hit the spotlight with the MNT, Eurosnobs can point to them to bolster arguments that MLS hobbles rather than helps young players (as they do with Adu and Altidore). If teams reap more benefit from fostering young talent they’ll be more likely to invest in better training all around, including the tactics that are notoriously lacking.

    This wouldn’t help as quickly as just bringing in more DPs and senior internationals, though, and that tactic might prove more attractive to antsy ownership groups looking for a quicker turnaround on their investments.

  13. MLS Rumors

    April 24, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    BTW: Kartik – You didn’t take into account the biggest difference between the Logan era and Garber era. The soccer specifc stadium. The majority of the league is now playing either in a soccer specific stadium or a stadium where they can reap ancillary revenue. That was not the case in the Logan days.

    In otherwords, the infrastructure has been built to now capture the dollars that more exciting players would bring to the stadium.

    And was it not you who bemoaned the fact that MLS teams do so poorly in the CONCACAF Champions League compared to the early DC United team that won both the CONCACAF Champions Cup but InterAmerican Cup?

    How do you think MLS is going to improve without better players?

  14. adam

    April 24, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    If USL did not exist I would agree with Kartik.

    But since half our players develop in USL/PDL anyhow, why don’t we just make that the developmental league and let MLS become like the Prem and really hook people into soccer? It’ll help USL, MLS, and the USSF.

    MLS will be a worldwide player.
    USL will be the place to see young yanks
    USMNT benefits!

  15. MLS Rumors

    April 24, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    There was a time when MLS was absolutely necessary for the development of the American player.

    However if you look at the last few years, with so many players from the SuperDraft going directly to Europe rather than play in MLS and so many opportunities for players in the USL and other leagues that is no longer the case.

    What Don Garber is trying to say is simply this:

    MLS is our top division.

    It is also a business.

    As such it should be entertaining to soccer fans in the US.

    There are tons of people who watch soccer in this country who could not care less about MLS. Garber recognizes that and the need for that to change.

    In Seattle and Toronto he sees first hand what the future could look like.

    MLS took off the training wheels when it passed the Designated Player rule. It’s time now to double the salary cap to between 4.6-6.0 million and allow some of the very wealthy ownership groups the opportunity to improve the product MLS tried to sell, market and convince us was relevant.

  16. Lars

    April 24, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    In addition, Canada has more registered soccer players than hockey players. Seeing that Canada is the most talented in the world at hockey, you tell me why can’t TFC find enough people to fill their roster? Oh right, they don’t want to put money into development.

  17. Lars

    April 24, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    The fact of the matter is that it’s not more difficult for them to build a squad. Mo won’t even give the Canadians they can get a chance. You can’t just create gold out of shit. You have to build a program, and you can’t build a program if you aren’t developing domestics. Sadly Mo hasn’t realized this yet.

  18. Gazza

    April 24, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Lars – TFC would love to play by the same rules. Right now it is more difficult for them to build a squad.

    And I agree with Jose. It doesn’t have to be either/or. Raise the cap ($5m at least), increase the roster and add a second DP slot that doesn’t count anything against the cap. That way the ambitious owners can bring in their stars and there’s still room to pay young Americans and Canadians to stay home.

  19. jose

    April 24, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Why does it have to be either/or? Can’t it move steadily towards challenging more prominent leagues while it still develops American players?

  20. PZ

    April 24, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve been saying since ’96. Put the best possible team on the pitch that you can afford and fans will find you. The DPs and other overpriced aging foreign players don’t allow teams to do that.

    There is plenty of decent American talent out there. Problem is, who wants to work for $24K? They go to the USL, Europe or get real jobs which pay better.

  21. Tom

    April 24, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    well, 420 roster spots anyway.

  22. Lars

    April 24, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    TFC should be made to play by the same rules as everybody else, and I don’t think the rules need to be altered for American teams. This means more domestics, less internationals, thank you very much.

  23. LittleRockAnt

    April 24, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    As we’ve been reminded countless times, the league is a business. Businesses want to make a profit. To profit the league needs butts in the seats, of course. Arguably, to make this happen we need bigger and better players. I won’t lie; I miss watching Valderamma and Etcheverry. On the field, it seems like the league has regressed. What’s the point in having a deeper player pool if those players aren’t very good because they play in a sub par league.

  24. Tom

    April 24, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    So let me get this straight. The MLS can’t find enough talent in the nation with the most registered soccer players in the world to fill 360 roster spots?

    I find this claim very suspicious.

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