On the day he was introduced as Major League Soccer’s second Commissioner in 1999, Don Garber was already unpopular and realised the path to any success was fraught with difficulties.
His 17 years with the National Football League (NFL), and helping to grow the game worldwide, mattered little to critics opposed to his arrival.
“In my opening press conference I remember the media really reacting negatively to an NFL guy coming into and running a soccer league,” recalls Garber. “There was a headline in a newspaper that said, ‘Don Garber, the wrong guy for the job’.
“I remember going home and thinking, ‘man I’ve been part of the most successful professional league for almost two decades and am taking responsibility for this sport that’s very new in America, only three years old, and I’m getting lambasted and criticised'. I took a step back and thought, ‘uh oh, maybe there is something is off here’.”
But having been brought up on New York’s mean streets, Garber was ready to fight to become the soccer Don.
“I was a pretty tough kid, a New York City guy,” he says. “The criticism didn’t hurt at all. I think it probably made me more energised to prove they were wrong.
“I also begun to realise that people are really passionate about the sport in our country. Though the fan base at that time was very small, people really believed in it with their heart and soul.”
Garber knew he had to become a believer too. He did watch the 1994 World Cup final when Brazil beat Italy at the Rose Bowl, seeing America “literally explode with excitement”, and was exposed to the European game during his final three years running the NFL’s international business.
“We had a team in Barcelona so I would go to Barcelona games,” says Garber, who went to college to study journalism and advertising. In London I’d go to Chelsea.
"My first game was Celtic against Rangers when I was up there visiting the Scottish Claymores. It was really a life experience and it’s hard to be in Europe and not be infatuated with the power and popularity of football.
“The first player I met, retired then, but really inspirational, was Johan Cruyff. His son-in-law was involved with the Barcelona Dragons during my days of NFL Europe.
“I spent time with him and he introduced me to the game. It’s impossible to be in the sports business and not understand the global importance and relevance of football.”
And Garber embraced his new challenge. As the league prepares to mark 20 years since its inception in 1996, he admits his time in charge has been exacting as well as enlightening.
“The early days we were wondering whether the league would ever be able to make it and thought long and hard about shutting it down,” reveals Garber.
“In 2000/01, there was a real question whether it had the staying power, whether the investors were committed to double down and triple down, whether they would be willing to build stadiums and invest in star players and build out their administrations.
“It was an investment that has led to several billion dollars in ownership commitment. It is fantastic that MLS has reached 20 years and we are proud of that.
“The key to success in Major League Soccer is not the league office, but the commitment of our ownership – and I will have that etched on my tombstone.
“This was a time when we got all our owners together and said, ‘hey it’s time to get serious’. There was a commitment to build stadiums, we rallied round, we dug in.
“Robert Kraft, Lamar Hunt, Phil Anschutz, Stan Kroenke, those guys had, what I would call, big boy courage, and we are not here today if not for those early investors making that commitment.
“We would not be here today if the ownership did not grow, and get investors and young people that were big believers in the future.”
From three owners in 2001, the league now has 19-and-a-half owners, as AEG owns Los Angeles Galaxy and half of Houston Dynamo.
They also include Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City after they teamed up with baseball’s New York Yankees to set up New York City FC in a $100 million deal.
“[City chairman] Khaldoon [Al Mubarak] really believes in our country, really loves the sport and he believes that their investment and his vision, and that of [CEO] Ferran Soriano, will help America become more of a soccer nation, help the sport grow in New York City and help the game globally,” Garber said.
“And I have been so pleased and impressed by their strategic view and the long-term vision and commitment to partnership.”
And Garber, 58 last week, sees MLS going from strength to strength. From having 12 teams in 1996, 10 in 2002, he is looking to expand from its current total of 20 to 24 and more. Atlanta United will join in 2017, Los Angeles FC a year later, and dates to follow for Minnesota United and David Beckham’s new Miami side.
There could be more Gulf interest too with Qatar Sports Investment linked with a buy-out of the New York Red Bulls as well as buying into Formula One. Officials from the Qatar Stars League also talked with Garber at the Soccerex Global Convention last month about building links.
And he tells Sport360 exclusively: “The Qatar group has been looking at MLS, as they have been looking at America as a sports perspective for many years. But right now we are very focused on our relationship with Abu Dhabi and Man City.”
Garber might have won over those past doubters, but he remains focused on making the MLS one of the world’s top leagues and where big names begin their careers rather than end them.
“It’s interesting, but we don’t really look at the other leagues to see where we could be,” he says. “I don’t know enough about La Liga, I don’t know enough about Ligue 1 to understand what it is that they’ve achieved.
“It’s great to have players like Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and Kaka in the league, but we want players to be thinking about, when they are starting their careers, that maybe we will do it in the US and Canada."