Key Word – Expansion
MLS commissioner Don Garber will never forget his first day in the job in 1999. He had given up a secure position with the NFL (American gridiron football) as senior vice-president/managing director of NFL International to lead a 32-year-old league that had lost USD 34 million the year before.
“I was attacked at the opening press conference,” he recalls. “Again, soccer stumbles and hires a gridiron football guy when they should be hiring a soccer guy. I remember walking out of the press conference, turning to my wife and saying, ‘Boy, I hope I made the right decision here’.”
Almost a decade later, Garber has no regrets as the league is now on a steady course. The first major changes were to get rid of the unpopular shootouts (to decide drawn matches) and the countdown clock (instead of allowing the referee to keep time). “This was all part of the beautiful soccer game but here the league was playing by rules saying that Americans would never understand the game like the rest of the world and the rules needed to be adapted for the American audience,” says Garber. “If that had been the case, we should never have been in the business in the first place.” He also has weathered some difficult times. After the 2001 season, the league discarded two underperforming clubs-the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny- dropping from 12 to 10 teams. “It was the most difficult decision that I made since I’ve been commissioner,” admits Garber. “That, along with the San Jose move (to Houston). When you’re a young league in an emerging sport making moves that are traumatic, it’s… difficult. Without those decisions, the league wouldn’t be where it is today.” No one is thinking of downsizing these days. Expansion is the key word, with the possibility of as many as 18 or 20 teams in the not-too-distant future.