Last Friday when MLS Commissioner Don Garber prepared to cast the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) ballot for FIFA President, Twitter blew up. The election, which was being broadcast live into American homes by both FOX Sports 1 and ESPN, was a major event in terms of soccer coverage in the United States, a landmark day of sorts.
Garber’s casting of the USSF’s ballot in the first round for Prince Ali of Jordan seemed to reinforce to many that the Federation, which is meant to serve as a neutral governing body in the country, and MLS, whose rules and structure defy the global norms for the sport of soccer, are in fact one entity in terms of ideology and principles.
While recent USSF decisions, such as the move to throw MLS Reserve sides out of the 2016 US Open Cup, indicate a degree of separation between the bodies, many fans complain that the unwillingness of the USSF to hold MLS’ feet to the fire on other matters demonstrates collusion. Current USSF President Sunil Gulati is a close ally of Garber’s and the mastermind behind many of MLS’ arcane rules. Gulati previously served as MLS’ Deputy Commissioner.
The USSF has been unwilling to discuss a vertical pyramid between leagues that integrates promotion and relegation between the divisions or the efforts of the second-division North American Soccer League (NASL) to be a first division on equal footing with MLS. NASL has alleged they cannot do business effectively without the arbitrary Division 1 designation that the USSF has given to MLS, but in fairness NASL as a league operationally is far closer to the Division 3 USL than to the Division 1 MLS. Still NASL and many of its fans allege that they must be given first division status in order to compete even though it owners have not invested nearly as much in the sport as their MLS counterparts.
With this background in mind and the fact that Gulati’s current term as USSF President runs until 2018 (though it is important to note that Gulati is eligible to remain on the FIFA Executive Committee until 2025 potentially giving the United States nine more years of representation on the most powerful body in the sport), one must wonder if Garber or another MLS official like MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott is potentially being lined up as a successor.
The relationship between the USSF and MLS is one of mutual benefit, at least on paper. Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which is owned and managed by MLS’ owners, has been able to package the television rights of the United States Men’s and Women’s National teams together with MLS games to, in theory, increase the value of both. It is however quite possible that this arrangement denies the USSF fair market value for its product if it were sold as a standalone package without MLS, which gets lower ratings and requires TV networks to clear time in some lucrative programming slots. The USSF also regularly brings matches to MLS stadiums, which generate more revenue for the teams that manage those facilities.
The NASL and third-tier USL are afforded no such breaks. They have been forced to fend for themselves to get broadcast deals and marketing rights secured. While it is true that NASL was shopped aggressively by the now-disgraced Traffic Sports for many years, those days are now over and it would be fair for the leagues to all be given similar treatment with their TV rights as MLS is. Since the USSF and MLS have created this web of intertwined activities, it is likely that the race against Gulati in 2018 will be of keen importance to the first division league.
As we sit after a FIFA Election where Gulati clearly played a leading role and the influence of the United States continues to be high in the global governing circles, the powers-that-be in the USSF and MLS are unlikely to take any chance in releasing power. FIFA has to this point — thanks to the influence of Gulati and the discredited Chuck Blazer — allowed MLS to make its own rules, play on its own calendar and structure the game as it likes in the United States and Canada.
Is it possible that Don Garber may want to campaign for the role as USSF President in 2018 to give Gulati an opportunity to focus more on his FIFA Executive Committee role? By doing so, it would block any chance of someone with a more even handed approach toward the pro game in this country from emerging as a new leader in USSF.
With the context of how the USSF and MLS operate together as well as the FIFA Election and the roles Gulati and Garber both played, I believe it is quite likely MLS will either run one of its executives or make sure the leading candidate is intensely loyal to the league. Many forces within the USSF are not quite as motivated to help MLS as Gulati and it is probably on the mind of Garber and other league officials that they will need to ensure a continuity of the status quo at Soccer House in Chicago.