Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber held his 16th State of the League address via conference call on Thursday to almost put a wrap on the league's 20th season, as we head into MLS Cup weekend.
Garber spent nearly an hour speaking on a wide range of subjects, ranging from the league's massive growth since its near death in 2001, to academy spending and roster spending. The dominating topic of the day was the expansion situation surrounding the projects in Miami and Sacramento, as David Beckham's stadium search continues to hit a brick wall and the thriving USL club is ready to pull the trigger on a brand new soccer stadium in downtown Sacramento.
While it's entirely possible that Sacramento Republic could leapfrog Miami in the expansion race, Garber noted that Sacramento was never a place that the league felt it needed to expand into, with other markets higher on the list.
"We've announced that we'll expand beyond 24 teams, and Sacramento will be very high on our list of teams to go in," Garber said of the situation. For the Republic group, it still remains a matter of "when," not "if" they'll join the league in the next several years.
With no deadline set for Miami to get a deal done, Garber made it very clear, saying, "if they don't get a stadium, they're not getting an MLS team."
At some point, MLS will have to move on from Miami, but it doesn't appear that time is coming soon.
Now, as for the rest of what Garber said:
- Speaking of expansion, Garber said Orlando and New York City were very much a success in their first years in the league, touching on the high average attendances of each, adding, "we never expected 62,000 fans at the debut match in Orlando."
- MLS is "very seriously considering" taking a two-week break during next summer's Copa America tournament in the United States. A handful of MLS cities will be involved in hosting games, including Orlando, which could make for some tricky scheduling. The tournament is also on the FIFA calendar, meaning teams must release their players if called up. That would be a big inconvenience to teams losing their players for a handful of games during the summer if necessary.
- Atlanta United FC has reached 29,000 season ticket deposits for 2017, a solid increase from the last update of 26,000 in October, and is also more than what the Seattle Sounders had at this point in their expansion process. Even if it's just a $50 fee right now, it's still a huge encouraging sign for the league and club as they prepare for their debut in 2017.
- MLS has put a large emphasis recently on academy spending and, according to Garber, spending on youth academies is above what player spending was in the league four to five years ago, showing a big growth in that market. "Every team must have a youth academy," Garber said.
- The league has 15 soccer specific stadiums as of now, and Garber hopes for 20 by the end of the decade, citing "solid plans for building in Orlando, D.C., Minnesota and the second team in LA." Orlando's stadium is currently under construction and could open in late 2016. D.C. and Minnesota could begin construction soon, and LA has also presented some solid plans for a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles.
- As for New York City FC, "there are no developments" in their stadium search, but Garber says the team remains focused on finding and building the right stadium in the New York City area.
- The league's relationship with USL is a "strong one," says Garber, as next year 11 MLS clubs, including Orlando City, will own and operate their own USL club. As of now, all MLS clubs are required to own or partner with a USL club, and Garber says that he doesn't see any problems with the current setup, and wouldn't require that teams own their own club, but it would certainly go a long way in team/player development.
- Speaking of, Garber agrees that spending more money on roster is a must in order to grow and compete with leagues such as Mexico, however, that doesn't mean expanding the rosters. With more teams owning USL teams, and the ease of moving players between both the MLS first team and USL, it practically creates a much deeper player pool for clubs to pick from, lessening the need to expand roster sizes.
- Garber was also asked about the lack of minority coaches and front office members in the league, and noted that the it's entirely up to the clubs to make those hires, but there is a solid interview process in place to make sure that the best candidates are hired to those positions.