Commentary

Not a bad decade

Major League Soccer has seen expansion, success under Don Garber

Originally Published: August 11, 2009
By Scott Powers | Special to ESPNChicago.com

Ten years ago last week, Don Garber was named commissioner of Major League Soccer.

Ten years ago Tuesday, not many believed Garber -- who admittedly knew little about the sport -- would last long in the MLS.

[+] EnlargeDavid Beckham
John Rieger/US PresswireDavid Beckham's presence has beefed up interest in Major League Soccer.
But today, 10 years later, Garber not only has lasted, he's flourished as MLS commissioner.

"It's been a great 10 years," said Garber, who was previously involved in the National Football League. "I don't think I expected the sport of soccer would be where it is today in America when I started in 1999.

"The owners took a big risk on me because I didn't come from the sport. There wasn't a guarantee I would be fully devoted to it. Now I realize it is the greatest sport in the world, the greatest sport in the region."

New England Revolution owner Robert Kraft did see Garber's hire as a gamble, but it was a calculated one.

"There's always a risk when you hire someone who hasn't done something before, and it requires a lot of skills," Kraft said. "You're not sure what's going to happen. … I remember talking to [MLS investor] Lamar Hunt, 'I think Don would be excellent person.' He understood sports marketing, international marketing, and soccer is an international game. He agreed and we put him up for the job. I'm glad he got it. He's done an outstanding job."

The MLS has made significant strides: Eight teams have soccer-specific stadiums; 13 new owners have come on since 2003; the league will expand to 18 teams in 2011; it has attracted such stars as David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco; corporate sponsorship is at an all-time high; ABC/ESPN televises games; international powerhouses travel to face MLS teams yearly; and Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS, holds the exclusive rights to most of the important soccer properties in the United States, which allows it to financially capitalize on international soccer games played in the U.S.

The Fire are a perfect example of the league's growth. They built a soccer-specific stadium in 2006; they were taken over by a new owner, Andell Holdings, in 2008; Blanco, a superstar in Mexico, signed with the team in 2007.

On Wednesday, the Fire continued to showcase the MLS as they met Tigres UANL in the SuperLiga championship at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. The SuperLiga, which was created in 2007, is a tournament between top teams in Mexico and the United States.

Garber was in attendance for Wednesday's game as the championship is also a part of MLS' Summer of Soccer, which features 101 games in 26 cities over 51 days.

[+] EnlargeCuauhtemoc Blanco
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCuauhtemoc Blanco has made the Fire perennial contenders.
On Saturday at another Summer of Soccer contest, Garber was in Los Angeles as the Galaxy faced FC Barcelona before 93,137 fans, the largest U.S. soccer crowd since the 1994 World Cup.

"It was one of the most special events in my 10 years in Major League Soccer," Garber said. "It was just a spectacular event."

It also helped that Beckham, the league's biggest name and highest-paid player, finally drew attention for his play on the field with a free kick goal against FC Barcelona rather than negative press surrounding his extended loan to AC Milan and his recent altercations with fans.

"I think David answered all his critics," Garber said. "David is a world-class player who was playing at the highest level at AC Milan and is now playing in Major League Soccer. If you have to have someone standing over the ball, I don't think you'd want anyone taking that ball other than David Beckham.

"This is the not the first time controversy has been around David. There were [England] fans who were disappointed in him in 1998 [for his red card in the World Cup]. He obviously won them back. … That's part of the David Beckham story. There's a bit of drama over him. It's doesn't surprise me that this happens. I think in a lot of ways it's added to the story."

As for the future, Garber would like to continue to expand the league, draw more top talent like Beckham, develop younger stars through the MLS and build more soccer-specific stadiums.

"Overall, we still have a long way to go," Garber said. "There are many challenges ahead, but I feel good where we are."

Kraft does too … as long as Garber is in charge.

"[The MLS] is a way for American youth to play soccer and continue to develop," Kraft said. "The youth in our country play a lot of different sports -- football, basketball, baseball. In other countries, they gravitate to soccer. Us continuing this league is critical. I hope in my lifetime the U.S. will win the World Cup. The success of the MLS is important too. I think with Don's leadership we can get there."

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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