Garbers Annual Address Image

MLS Commissioner Don Garber delivers his annual state of league address

In unique use of technology for an American sports league MLS Commissioner Don Garber did not use a conference call, but instead embraced a Google Hangout to deliver his state of the league address to media and fans around the country.

Opening with a video that focused on the intense action on the field and in the stands around Major League Soccer, Commissioner Don Garber used that introduction to talk about the two-fold focus of the League and how it will meet the aggressive goal of being a top league in the world by 2022. Those two things are simple to state, but complicated targets. The first is play on the field, while the second is to continue to expand the passion of fans of MLS now and those who have yet to embrace it.

Play on the field will take place through a five part method according to Commissioner Garber.

1. Designated Players and other high impact players
2. Developing young professionals through the partnership with USL PRO
3. Developing Academy players through a new partnership with the French Football Foundation
4. Continued improvement in the referees
5. Improving coaching

In the short time that the Designated Player rule is in place its usage has more than tripled, but there are other high impact players. The league brought in 80 players who play for their national teams and now play in the United States or Canada. It has been particularly effective in bringing in Central American players such as Seattle’s own Mario Martinez. Unlike the perception that MLS is a retirement league for global icons the average age of these internationals brought in is under 27.

Listing off Designated Players scattered around MLS, among them Mauro Rosales, he said “These guys are difference makers that our fans are excited to see in the stadium and more importantly our fans are excited to see on television.” Those players are American stars, icons from Europe and Latin American players of all ages and types.

But it will take more than short contracts of world class talent to reach a goal that is nine years away. With tens of millions of dollars around the league invested in Academies the more than 80 HomeGrown Players signed by MLS clubs need a place to continue their development. The recent partnership with USL PRO is that path. During the Question and Answer segment he clarified that this relationship is not a path to MLS expansion.

It is a way to find more playing time for players deeper on the roster. Currently only four MLS sides are partnered with USL PRO teams, but it is year one of the system. At a recent practice session Adrian Hanauer said that Sounders FC next year “will have a USL partner whether they are local or a team that already exists somewhere that will be a fantastic opportunity for us to get a number of young players, a minimum of four, but maybe, six, eight, ten, significant minutes in meaningful games.”

Participating in that level of the pyramid is something that is important for the players that get that time, but also for Major League Soccer. It will continue to grow the professional pool of non-soccer employees in the United States. According to statistics offered later by the Commissioner there are more than 2,000 full-time employees through MLS with over 6,500 hundred that work on gameday.

At those games, fans expect matches called to their satisfaction. MLS is working on improving referees through a few actions. Commissioner Garber mentioned that the full-time pool of referees is now at nine. Those nine will be evaluated by three full-time administrators within PRO. There will be a greater emphasis in 2013 on treating referees with respect, reducing the large scrums of players and on educating fans on what the proper call was. Several of the most discussed calls over the last season, when reviewed, were the right call.

The last on-field issue is coaching. Major League Soccer recently partnered with the French Football Federation to improve Academy coaching and help players develop. This partnership involves eight weeks of course work, sessions observing some of the top teams in the world and a possible restructuring of the local MLS clubs’ Academy systems. Former Seattle Sounders FC broadcaster Greg Vanney and current Sounders Academy Technical Director Darren Sawatzky are among the 21 participants in the program.

One of the keys to Major League Soccer meeting the oft-stated goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world by 2022 will be sharing the passion of current fans and unlocking those who love the game, but currently pay little attention to the league. To accomplish that, MLS is starting a season long campaign of “This is soccer” which will show all the imagery that makes the sport resonate with the fan base.

It is not limited to conventional media of television and print, but is a consistent campaign across social media platforms, print, TV, radio and emerging technologies. It begins with the March to Soccer. That March to Soccer is currently in Jersey Week (see Sounders FC’s new kits), entering into season openers and will be highlighted by Rivalry Week when Portland visits CenturyLink Field among other matches featuring teams with rivalries as deep as any in American sports.

The March to Soccer ideally will be an entry point to fans that have not given MLS a chance recently. In the Q&A session he explained that TV ratings and partnerships are increasing, but need to continue to advance. It will take more than just current fans for that to be true.

As in every time Don Garber is in front of reporters a major theme was expansion. A second team in the New York metropolitan area is still a goal. “We continue to work hard for our 20th team to be here in New York, preferably in Flushing Meadows,” Garber stated. It is not the only area being explored. The list of potential new markets for MLS also includes Orlando, Miami, Minneapolis and Atlanta.

When he listed the major storylines of the season one is particularly poignant for Sounders fans.

"It is a goal for Major League Soccer to win the Champions League.”

To become a top league in the world, MLS must first surpass the best league in its region. Garber stated that teams in Mexico are not too far out of reach with first team soccer salaries not too far beyond those of MLS. Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles all have the opportunity to be the first to accomplish that goal. LA’s quest for a third straight MLS Cup and new Designated Player Chris Wondolowski’s quest to pass the single-season scoring record he tied in 2012 were also mentioned.

This weekend Commissioner Garber will visit Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles as he continues his own March to Soccer. His live game action will start with you when Seattle faces the Montreal Impact at 7:30 PM on Saturday. Your March to Soccer is at 6:30 PM in Occidental Park.

To watch the full March to Soccer Address go to Major League Soccer’s YouTube channel.