A Conversation with MLS Commissioner Don Garber

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber's thoughts on Portland’s debut in MLS, regional riv

Amidst all the hubbub and activity yesterday around the Timbers stadium renovation groundbreaking ceremony, Timbers Digital Media Director Brian Costello managed to sit down with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber to chat a bit about his thoughts on Portland’s debut in MLS, regional rivalries, and season schedule challenges. While the 2010 season is still in full swing, Garber has very strong ideas about what 2011 and beyond shall bring for the Timbers and for the league.

Questions and answers edited for clarity.

To start with, what are your thoughts about Portland and the groundbreaking?
Commissioner Don Garber:  It’s exciting. I think it’s an exciting day for me personally. This was a project that was very close to my heart and I think we spent a great deal of time working with the city and working with [Timbers Owner and President] Merritt [Paulson] and the team to get to this point so personally, I’m thrilled. But it’s a big important moment for the league and I think for the sport overall in this country. I believe we’ll be very successful here. We’ve got a great downtown stadium being built and that’s certainly been something—this urban core concept—that’s worked well in other markets. Any time you can have a successful launch of a pro sports team, which we’re expecting it will be, that’s good for soccer in America.

You’ve already got Seattle. Portland and Vancouver come online next year. How is the league looking to capitalize on a longstanding and heated rivalry between these three cities?
Garber:  It all started with the three teams. The three teams have gotten together on their own and are brainstorming. Talking through and setting a blueprint for what they believe is necessary amongst themselves to establish the rivalry and manage the rivalry, to do it professionally and to do it in good taste. The league is doing something on a parallel basis and then we’ll come together as all leagues do . . . With [Portland and Vancouver] being a part of the Pacific Northwest, I expect we’re going to have a big opportunity.

Would you say that that rivalry is something that is new and unique in a way that the league hasn’t quite experienced before?
Garber:   I think the answer to that is yes. That’s part of the fun and excitement of being engaged or involved in a new business. Things happen and you’ve got to try to tap on to it as you do with any startup and maximize the opportunity. We’ve done that with player signings, we’ve done that with expansion generally, we’ve done that with stadium launches, we’ve done that when World Cup comes upon us; and I think that we’ll be able to do that with the launch of the clubs and the regional rivalries that will come along with that. Has there ever been an opportunity like this? I don’t think that there has been. I think it’s big.

You’re expanding the season to 34 games, do you foresee any problems or challenges with the extra games? With CONCACAF Champions League, with U.S. Open Cup, and with the lengthening of the season, how are those extra games going to affect rosters?
Garber:  I think we’ve got to continue to lengthen our season. We’ve got to continue to lengthen our schedule as our fans are asking us to do. We’ve got to push it. We’ve got to nudge it. I know it’s painful at times but we’ve got to get to the point where we’re aligned with the rest of the world. We don’t deny we have to do that, I’m just saying we cannot do that now. The only way we can get closer is to continue to push the envelope. Some things might fallout. Some things might have to change to get there, but we need to conform a bit more. We need to have more games and we need to have a longer season. If we want top international players to play here, they don’t want to play for seven and half months, they want to play for ten months. That’s a big issue. That’s probably our biggest issue.

When you say align, do you foresee a future where MLS goes to a season similar to Europe that runs fall to spring?
Garber:  Conceivably. Look what Russia did. Russia re-organized to get closer to alignment and their weather situation is worse than ours. I’m curious to see how it works. They probably have a bit more strength than we do in terms of the popularity of their league. Perhaps owners [there] that have different agendas. I don’t think they would have done this 10 years ago. We’ll monitor it closely.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer