MLS officials are concerned about the quality of the U.S. Men’s National Team and how that could reflect on the league, Commissioner Don Garber told more than 200 students, faculty and guests Thursday at the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute.
“Our national team is struggling,” he said flatly. “We looked great last night – last night we beat Guatemala. … All of those players on that field were playing Major League Soccer or played in Major League Soccer. Many of them came up through the youth system, many of them played in the U.S. Soccer Academy down in Florida and they were pretty good – they beat Guatemala pretty handily.
“You take that team and play them against England’s – maybe not England’s, but Germany’s or Italy’s first team – and boy, we’ve got a long way to go. … Let’s not believe our own press and think that we’re OK because we’re beating each other. Let’s think about how we’re competing against the world – and against the world, we’re worried.
“I’m really worried about how we’re going to do,” (in 2010 is what it sounded like he was going to say here), before he quickly added “I hope there’s no media people here, they’ll get me in trouble for this,” (too late, Don).
“We’re going through qualifying pretty well, we’re one of the best teams in our region. But when we get out we have to compete against world powers who have been doing this for 100 years. It’s not the same game – and that’s a big concern of ours.”
That’s because, Garber observed, the league’s number one goal is to raise the respect and credibility of the league domestically and internationally in the eyes of an “increasingly more sophisticated soccer consumer.”
“We think we could be as big as the NFL,” said Garber, former head of NFL International.
But the quality of the product is the key to that.
“We have to have value, we have to have a product people care about,” he said. “We’ve got to show our fans and players the game matters.”
One way is to have more than a cursory knowledge of it.
So here’s a little “Are Your Smarter Then Don Garber When it Comes to Soccer?” quiz.
Question: How many teams are in InterLiga, the competition played in the U.S. (including Home Depot Center) that qualifies two Mexican teams to enter Copa Libatadores?
Answer: Garber wondered aloud whether the answer was 10. If you said eight, you’re smarter than Don Garber.
Question: Does Mexico have relegation and promotion?
Answer: Don said “no” they have the same system the U.S. does. Not so. If you said Mexico does have relegation, again, you’re smarter than Don Garber. (The system is based on a formula over three years designed to ensure the richer/bigger clubs are unlikely to go down and lose out on the revenues from the top league).
Still, he conceded about relegation, “Our fans are screaming for it. Our coaches are screaming for it,” while adding, “We’re not structured for it.”
Meaning rich dudes paying $40 million for a franchise plus the cost of building a soccer-specific stadium don’t want to entertain the prospect of playing in the USL.
Finally, Garber noted that although MLS has the cheapest average ticket price of any major sport ($21) “the sports business is not immune from the economic crisis we’re living through.” He said he didn’t feel “as good” as he did six months ago about the league’s financial prospects.
Join the club, Don.