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MLS commissioner Don Garber walks a tightrope over sports, politics and immigration

Like many other American sports leagues' commissioners, if MLS' Don Garber could have his way, he might keep sports and politics a bit more separate than they are. But that is easier said than done.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.Read moreMark Humphrey/AP

NEW YORK — Like many other American sports leagues' commissioners, if MLS' Don Garber could have his way, he might keep sports and politics a bit more separate than they are.

But that is easier said than done. Soccer is the world's game, and MLS has players in its ranks from 72 countries. It also has specific aspirations to be a big deal among this country's Spanish-speaking population, with help from longtime TV partner Univision.

The league took a step in that direction on Tuesday, announcing a new joint initiative with its next-door neighbor in Mexico.

Headlining the partnership is the start of an annual "Campeones Cup" game between the champions of MLS and Mexico's Liga MX. This year's edition will be between Toronto FC and the winner of the current Mexican league season, on Sept. 19 at Toronto's BMO Field. The teams will play for a cash prize (the size is still to be determined) as well as regional bragging rights

There will also be a continued commitment to match the winner of Mexico's under-20 youth development league against a team of MLS academy products in the annual Homegrown Game, held in conjunction with the mid-summer All-Star Game.

And there is a promise to fulfill a wish that many MLS fans and observers have had for a while: the MLS All-Star team will face a Liga MX All-Star team at some point in the future. That is sure to be a smash hit at the box office and on TV.

The Mexican league is already by far the most popular soccer league in the U.S. Its television broadcasts here draw millions of viewers, easily beating the hundreds of thousands who watch MLS and European contests on English-language channels. Corporate sponsors are already well aware, and sponsor Liga MX broadcasts just like NBA and NFL games.

One might think that it doesn't benefit MLS to willingly share the spotlight as it aims to become a bigger deal in its own country. Garber disagrees.

"People might be surprised at this: the combination of Liga MX and MLS playing together, in — putting politics aside — a near-borderless world, gives us something that other leagues in this country don't have," he said. "It's bi-cultural, it's bi-national, it captures a lot of the exciting things that are going on with this exploding Hispanic market, and this passion for the game among all populations. So rather than look at this from out of fear, we look at this partnership as one of enormous opportunity."

The world is not borderless, though, and that includes Garber's home country. So when he spoke about there being a "social responsibility" component to the MLS-Liga MX deal, a collision between sports and politics seemed impossible to avoid.

Back in 2015, Mexican-American midfielder Miguel Aguilar became the first undocumented immigrant to play in MLS. He was protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law, commonly known as DACA. In March of 2017, when the Trump administration started deportation proceedings against some DACA recipients, the then-23-year-old Aguilar told the Los Angeles Times that he feared being thrown out of the country. He now has a green card.

Garber was asked on Tuesday whether his league has a role to play in the public debate about immigration and related political matters.

"Well, frankly, we're no different than any other employer, and every employer is trying to do what they can to ensure that their employees or their customers are able to achieve the rights that they come into our country hoping to achieve," he answered. "But at the same time, we're also operating in an environment where we're subject to the laws of our country, as they are determined by our president, or determined by Congress, or determined by our courts. So we have to carefully balance those issues, and do what we can to support our employees and support our fans, but at the same time not run up against the laws of our country."

Many MLS team owners also have stakes in NFL, NBA and other American sports teams. Garber often calls on them for advice as his league grows in stature.

"We tread carefully in this space, as does the NFL or the NBA when they are dealing with issues that put them into the public eye as it relates to politics. And I talk to other commissioners about it, the speak with our owners about it, and we try to be as thoughtful as we possibly can," he said. "That is a long way of saying that there is no easy answer. We're not making decisions based on what social media or the [news] media might want us to do, but more what we need to do to ensure that we're being good corporate citizens and good leaders."

The spotlight, whether on or off the field, likely won't go away soon.