MLS chief sees bright future as league expands

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AP)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AP)

Portland - MLS commissioner Don Garber believes the league has earned respect from the international community as the competition continues to go from strength to strength.

Twenty-three years after 10 teams participated in the inaugural season of Major League Soccer, the flagship club competition for football in the United States has more than doubled in size.

Garber says an array of new soccer-specific stadiums, a steadily-increasing fan base and the prospect of a 30-team league indicate that football is firmly anchored in the US sporting landscape.

The latest addition to the skyline of MLS stadia is the newly refurbished Providence Park in Portland, where Garber was among a record 25 218 crowd who saw the Timbers defeated by Los Angeles FC on Saturday.

Garber said the maturity of MLS, where attendances averaged just under 22 000 a game last season, had gained the league increasing respect around the world.

"Years ago, the international football community barely acknowledged that we existed, let alone rated us as having any sense we knew what we were doing or that our structure had any rational logic to it," Garber told reporters.

"That was from FIFA and US Soccer. But over time that has shifted.

"Portland is a fantastic example of what MLS can deliver and the arc of stadium development over the last 20 years has been remarkable but I think it follows the arc of the development of the league.

"The momentum is going to continue."

Garber, who is one of the two vice-chairmen of the World Leagues Forum - an umbrella group of the top domestic leagues around the world - believes football will continue to evolve dramatically over the coming decades.

"I think in the future - if you are going to look at 10, 20 , 30, 40 years ahead - professional soccer is going to look very different than what it does today," said Garber.

Cross-border competition?

In the North American context, that could mean increased competition comprising teams from Major League Soccer and Mexico.

"Could there be multiple divisions that feed up into a League tournament that feeds up into a championship, a closer relationship with Liga MX?" Garber said.

"If you were able to have the two leagues play in their competition, come together and play in the North American version of the Premier League, a truly continental championship would be pretty cool and pretty valuable," he added.

Garber meanwhile pays close attention to the tensions in European soccer, where several of the continent's richest clubs are once again giving serious consideration to a breakaway league.

"If the big clubs do pull away I think that will have a negative effect on all the other teams in Europe. I hope it doesn't happen," Garber said.

"We think the other way - we don't allow one team to make a decision for the whole. We make decisions together.

"There are a lot of things going on at an international level which need to be resolved at some point. Is it about one club or more than that? Is it about the League or the Confederations? It's being debated.

"I believe in Leagues, in order and in structure and strategy. In Europe and other parts of the world, I am not sure clubs are thinking about how they work in their Leagues rather than how can they work with their compatriots.

"Our structure (in MLS) is a great structure in that our teams have the ability to offer the fans every year the hope that they can win a championship and that doesn't happen in most leagues."

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