Armed with a litany of talking points and factoids demonstrating growth and improvement both on and off the field, Don Garber delivered his live State of the League Address on Friday afternoon on the eve of the MLS Cup in Toronto.
“Our league is young, but we’re continuing to evolve and develop,” Garber said, noting that a record 500 journalists will be covering Saturday’s game, which will be televised live on the FOX network for the first time.
After sharing some highlights - new records established for average fans per game (21,700), national television viewership and growth in social media, merchandising (25 percent increase) and club valuations - Garber mentioned Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya by name as one of the key signings demonstrating the league becoming a “league of choice.”
Folks like Bedoya, Garber said, represent “a very important trend that began a few years ago with the signing of Ignacio Piatti and Diego Valeri, arguably two of the more exciting players in Major League Soccer. These are players who came to our league in their 20s, the prime of their career.”
Garber went on to confirm reports that each club will be receiving $400,000 more in targeted allocation money, bringing the total to $1.2 million for each club in acquiring higher quality players. The Union sent $75,000 in TAM to the Chicago Fire, along with $100,000 in general allocation money and their first round pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft for the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Order to acquire the USMNT midfielder in August.
Bedoya was the only Union player mentioned in Garber’s remarks, but the club did come up again in of all places when Garber was asked about Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic and his recent standout performance against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
“If Christian was developed by the Union and they sold him off to Dortmund or maybe hung on to him and sold him off to Manchester United or whomever that obviously would be a good story to tell and I think it would empower lots of further investment,” Garber said, before praising what FC Dallas has done with their youth development.
The remark was salt on the wound of fans who have followed the Hershey native’s career trajectory. Pulisic was part of the Union youth setup in its early days as a member of youth affiliate PA Classics, but did not continue with the club when they joined the U.S. Soccer Development Academy ahead of the 2013-14 season.
Some other topics covered in Garber’s remarks include the playoff format, which he said will not be changing in 2017 and video assistance for referees, which will be tested in the first half of the 2017 season and implement after the All-Star Game.
“The innovation will allow our league to be stronger,” Garber said.
On expansion, Garber said a process and timeline for expansion of teams 25, 26, 27 and 28 will be released after the league’s board meeting next Thursday. The 24th slot is still being reserved for David Beckham’s Miami franchise, which has, according to Garber, a deadline he isn’t willing to share in place.
When asked about the recent struggles with the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos in particular, Garber said instability at any level isn’t good.
“When it reverberates around the world that there is instability in professional soccer I don’t think that’s good for anybody,” he said, noting that he believes MLS “has been a good leader in the sport.”
Garber also talked about the recently announced partnership with the Canadian Soccer Association to focus on youth development and expand the Generation adidas program and noted that U.S. law doesn’t allow for all Canadian players to be treated as domestic players for U.S. teams. A rule change, however, will enable players who came up through an MLS Academy in Canada to be counted as domestic should they end up on a U.S.-based team in the future.
When asked about the MLS SuperDraft and its diminishing returns, Garber said it will need to evolve without providing any details. He also noted the effort to expand the Division 1 season to an academic calendar and said he’d like to see college’s role in development “not go away entirely.”
“College is still an opportunity for Canadian and American players,” Garber said.