Exclusive: MLS commissioner Don Garber addresses Zlatan, league challenges and more

The MLS All-Stars will take on Spanish club Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in Orlando (8 p.m. ET, FS1), but that’s not the only thing league commissioner Don Garber has to celebrate the over coming days.

This Sunday marks Garber’s 20th anniversary at the helm of the domestic league, which was a sputtering 12-team operation when he replaced original commish Doug Logan on Aug. 4, 1999. Less than three years into the job, Garber had folded two clubs and found himself pitching a plan to prevent the league’s handful of deep-pocketed backers from pulling the plug on the rest.

“When we sat through those meetings with owners and talked about folding the league, there was a side to me that never believed that would happen,” Garber told Yahoo Sports on Monday during a phone conversation. “There was almost like a manifest destiny to the idea of building a first-division pro soccer league in America. And I still believe our best days are ahead of us.”

No wonder. MLS has ballooned to 27 clubs during Garber’s tenure, including the three expansion teams (in Austin, Miami and Nashville) set to kick off by 2021. Three more are scheduled to arrive soon after that. Garber has changed significantly over the last two decades, too. He beat prostate cancer. He stopped riding Harley Davidsons. But his belief in Major League Soccer’s potential never wavered.

On the eve of the midsummer classic and his own milestone, here are Garber’s thoughts on the past, present and future of MLS.

As the 20th anniversary of Don Garber taking over as MLS commissioner approaches, he spoke to Yahoo Sports' Doug McIntyre on a variety of issues. (Associated Press)

(Edited for length and clarity)

Yahoo Sports: There were some dark days early on. When did you finally feel that MLS was finally on solid footing?

Don Garber: When I walked into the Home Depot Center, now Dignity Health Sports Park, in L.A. in 2003. It was a true cathedral for the sport of soccer in America. I knew then that it was a model that, should we be able to find the owners and public entities that were willing to invest in new stadiums, that would put us on an entirely different path. We needed to have stadiums of our own.

And then David Beckham joined the league in 2007, and then shortly thereafter we opened up in Toronto in a downtown stadium with really passionate fans. We realized we needed to work on building a supporters culture, because while we had passionate fans in the early days of the league, Toronto took that to an entirely new level. And then Seattle took it to an even higher level.

Where do you see MLS in another 20 years?

I have no doubt that we will be one of the top leagues in the world on the competitive side and also in business metrics. If you look at the amount of energy that the rest of the football world is placing on our market, there’s no doubt that we just need to continue to build strong fan bases, continue to invest in player development and our facilities. And we need to continue to grow the league throughout North America.

Focusing on the here and now, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored some spectacular goals but he’s also been controversial. He’s had disciplinary issues on the field, and he’s been critical of the level of play off of it. What’s your take on him?

I follow Zlatan’s comments like anyone else. Most of them make me smile. Some of them make me really laugh. And some of them I kind of scratch my head and say I kinda wish he didn’t say that.

But he’s never doing it with any intent to harm the league. I think he’s a unique personality. He is, perhaps along with David Beckham, the most popular global player we’ve ever had. But what I love the most about Zlatan is that he delivers. He got everybody keyed up right before LAFC-Galaxy and he scored three goals and it was a game that resonated around the world.

When he suggests that the league is prioritizing business interests ahead of quality of play, is that one of the things you wish he didn’t say?

I haven’t spent a lot of time around Zlatan but I’ve spent a little. He’s a really bright guy but, like many people, he doesn’t have the information to really understand what kinds of things go into building a league with long-term economic viability. How do you ensure that there’s competitive balance so that every fan knows that their team can be successful? How do you work within the challenges of playing in the largest market in the world across multiple times zones with different climates? I wouldn’t expect him to understand that. That’s not his job. So I don’t agree with many of the things that he says regarding aspects of the league. But again, I don’t in any way believe he saying it to harm us. He’s an outspoken guy with a point of view and I respect that.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, seen here being interviewed in Orlando ahead of the MLS All-Star Game, has made plenty of headlines since joining the Los Angeles Galaxy. (Reuters)

What do you say to people who believe that had any other player in the league broken a bone in an opponent’s face, as Ibrahimovic did recently, he would’ve been suspended?

It’s 100% entirely untrue. The league would have no credibility if we made decisions based on the popularity of a player. That particular play was looked at in great detail by [Professional Referee Organization general manager] Howard Webb and our disciplinary committee. And our rules are clear. The DisCo requires unanimity to act and there wasn’t unanimity. That committee is made up of former players and members of the referee community. They’re not remotely concerned about the pressure we get from fans. It was an unfortunate incident but those things do happen in sports. If the DisCo believed it required further discipline, I assure you they would’ve acted, just like they acted a couple of months earlier when Zlatan was suspended.

MLS Cup will be played a month earlier than it has been in recent years. Players on teams that don’t make the playoffs could go four or five months between league games. How concerning is that?

It is a concern. We continue to tweak our schedule. We have to manage through a wide variety of pressures, not the least of which is a FIFA break right in the middle of our playoffs. So we believe that this is the right approach, one that will drive more interest for our playoffs. We’ll assess how it does after a couple years and see if we’ve made the right decision.

The league continues to expand and expansion fees continue to rise, but something you said to me during a background conversation we had last summer keeps coming back to me, that those fees are basically intended to compensate existing owners for opening up more seats at the table. Can you expand on that on-record?

We focus on bringing in the right owners who have the long-term capacity to invest in not only their rosters but also in infrastructure and marketing and the lIke. And in order to compensate for the dilution of the equity that existing owners have in the league, we, like all leagues, establish expansion fees. And as the league becomes more valuable, the expansion fees go up.

I would think that our fans would want more money coming into the league and for our clubs to be more valuable because if there is a long-term business opportunity, owners will invest more in their clubs to make them more relevant and have a higher quality of play. And that’s the only way that that happens in a moment where we’re still investing and many teams are not cash-flowing positively.

The collective bargaining agreement with the players expires at the end of the year. How do you see the next CBA negotiations playing out?

I have great respect for [MLS Players Association boss] Bob Foose and his staff. They continue to bring in ex MLS-players to join the union and help further the goals on behalf of all of our players. [League VPs] Mark Abbott and Todd Durbin will continue to engage with Bob and their attorneys and see how we can put ourselves in a position to try to finalize an agreement, but that’s the most I’ll say about that.

David Beckham and Inter Miami are coming to MLS in 2020. (Getty)

Inter Miami announced in June that it would begin life in MLS next season in a temporary venue on the site of the old Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, where the Miami Fusion played before folding in 2002. Thoughts on that arrangement?

We’ve been focused on having a team in Miami for more than a decade, but as everyone who follows our league knows there have been real challenges in trying to finalize a facility plan that makes sense. So I have great admiration for Jorge Mas and his partners for spending north of $50 million on the temporary facility at Lockhart Stadium. We have a big vote coming up for the Freedom Park project downtown. They just signed two new players and David Beckham has been very active in managing their brand. They are going to be a very ambitious club.

The two L.A. teams are thriving but teams in other large markets — New York, Chicago, Houston, New England — have struggled for relevancy. How do you fix that?

Each of the markets that you mentioned has their own unique situation, from stadium challenges to branding issues to other things that put those clubs under pressure. We’re focused on working with each of them to try to improve their business metrics. In every one of those markets I believe in the ownership group. It’s not unique to us to have challenging teams in our league. We’re going to hunker down and make sure we address each of those individually.

Former Chicago Fire president Peter Wilt recently wrote an open letter imploring the club not to rebrand. Thoughts?

I haven’t seen Peter’s letter but I’m thrilled that the Fire have reached an agreement with the city of Bridgeview to move. While it was the right thing in 2006, it really isn’t right for the MLS team in Chicago today. Chicago is a great soccer market and we need to deliver a great product and environment and that’s really what my focus is on in my discussions with ownership.

Would you prefer they remain the Fire?

I don’t have a strong preference. I’m going to leave that to ownership. They’ve been doing research and spending time with outside branding experts to come up with a good long-term solution, one that’s going to be driven by research and data and less by emotion.

New York City FC continues to play in Yankee Stadium. What the latest on their stadium search?

I know they’re focused on a specific project. There’s really not much detail I can add but I’m encouraged that will lead to a different situation. I think about the challenges that we had to get Red Bull Arena built [in Harrison, New Jersey], to get Audi Field built [in Washington, D.C.]. Big market stadium projects are enormously difficult. But like when you asked me where will MLS be in the future, I have no doubt that in Boston, in New York we will have great stadium projects eventually.

With so many cities hoping to join MLS, could you foresee a day when the league has more than 30 clubs, and perhaps promotion and relegation within some sort of MLS 1, MLS 2 format?

Beyond being one of the best things in the world, it’s impossible to know exactly what MLS will actually look like in 20 years, or in 50 years. The country is changing, the sport is evolving and the overall popularity of soccer continues to grow. Right now we’re focused on the handful of markets that we need to finalize with to get to 30. We’ll work with the clubs that have challenges to ensure that they can be more successful. I’m not spending any time thinking about what MLS will look like beyond that because even after 20 years, I’m still coming into work every day with a list of immediate tasks. I’m not really thinking about MLS 1, 2, 3 or 5.

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