AP Interview: MLS commissioner has eyes on young star power
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber believes his league is in transition when it comes to star players.
It’s a youth movement slowly taking hold as teams shift from older designated players to younger options to fill the premier roles.
“Without doubt the target is younger players who are coming at the prime of their career or even as they’re beginning to establish their career,” Garber said.
Garber spoke with The Associated Press by phone this week leading to Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Seattle and Toronto, discussing the hiring of national coach Bruce Arena and league expansion to Atlanta and Minnesota in 2017.
The evolution of the designated player role is tilting younger, with some of the bigger and older names leaving. Stars like Sebastian Giovinco, Mauro Diaz and Jozy Altidore are in their prime and spending that time in MLS.
That’s not to say MLS will close the door on prominent players looking to the league as a place to spend their final few seasons — in the manner of Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo. David Villa at 34 was the MLS MVP this season, and Garber raves about his role.
But Garber suspects the older stars will supplement the league as it moves forward.
“The strategy in the past might have been to sign players that were well known who have already established their legend playing someplace else,” Garber said. “Now we’re able to bring in a (Nicolas) Lodeiro who is an accomplished player at 28, but he’s the MLS newcomer of the year and we’re hoping he can create a legend for himself in Major League Soccer and in Seattle.
“Certainly Sebastian Giovinco has been able to prove that, and Giovani dos Santos who has seen his career really rise to an entirely new level by playing in (Los Angeles). It’s part of the evolution of our league.”
The tipping point, Garber believes, has been the success of Giovinco, who signed with Toronto in 2015 at 28 and was the league MVP in his first season. Garber also noted the performances of Ignacio Piatti in Montreal and Diego Valeri in Portland as key signings in helping create the shift.
“Somebody told me the other day it’s OK to give those guys who helped get us here a gold watch,” Garber said. “But now it’s time to sign players who are younger, who aren’t thinking about that gold watch. They’re thinking about winning some silverware, the MLS Cup trophy.”
Among other topics Garber addressed as MLS completes its 21st season:
U.S. SOCCER: Garber expects a strong relationship between Arena and the league, but did not address whether Arena’s appointment will lead to more MLS players being considered for the national team. Garber also remained confident of the U.S. qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia despite losing its first two matches in the final qualifying round.
“We’re obviously very excited about him taking the reins of our national team,” Garber said. “He knows our league. He knows our national team and he’s deeply experienced in knowing the game and managing the game.”
COMING ON BOARD: Garber is pleased with the foundation set by Atlanta and Minnesota, the two expansion teams coming on board in 2017, bringing the league to 22 teams. Atlanta has topped the 20,000 season-ticket plateau. Minnesota will break ground next week on its soccer-specific stadium.
Los Angeles Football Club will join the league in 2018 as the 23rd team. Garber seemed less enthusiastic about David Beckham’s drawn-out attempt at bringing a team to Miami as the league’s 24th franchise. Asked about developments on that front, Garber said, “Nothing new on Miami.”
Garber confirmed new guidelines and a timeline on expansion to 28 teams is expected to be put in place at league meetings this month.
CHINA: Garber doesn’t see the Chinese Super League as a competitor even though it is luring recognized players with large contracts.
“I don’t believe they are a competitor at all,” Garber said. “When professional soccer grows in emerging markets it’s a positive for the professional sports business.”
SCHEDULING: MLS expects to release its 2017 schedule shortly after the New Year, with the season likely starting in early March. Garber said the league plans to be “mindful” of FIFA’s international breaks for national team commitments and next summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.