MLS commissioner Don Garber likely had a long list of things he could have done on Tuesday.
He could have traveled to Mexico to watch Los Angeles FC face León in the Concacaf Champions League, on the opening night of the domestic club soccer calendar. He could have visited the many teams clustered in Arizona and Florida for preseason exhibition tournaments.
Or he could have stayed in his office, where there’s always plenty at hand. He could have called over to New York City FC perhaps, since the team is finally making progress on getting its own stadium.
Instead, Garber came to Chester to attend the Union’s unveiling of Subaru Park as the new name of their stadium.
Garber is good friends with Union majority owner Jay Sugarman, and not just because their Manhattan offices are a short walk from each other. Their connection is sincere. So the commissioner got on a train in the morning and headed south.
“This is a team that I think has been working really hard to really re-establish themselves in the community on and off the field,” Garber said of the Union. “Great success on the field last season, and they’ve got a lot of great activities planned in the community this year. When I was told about the Subaru partnership, which is the first ever [for the company] in any major-league sport, I thought it would be great to just come down and support it.”
Garber is also a longtime admirer of the Union’s commitment to developing players through the team’s youth academy. That’s definitely in the league’s interest, from a soccer perspective and a financial one.
“They’ve traded most of their draft picks over the last number of years, saying, ‘Why do we need college kids? We can just buy our own academy kids,’ ” Garber said. “I’ve spent more time at their academy than I’ve spent in this stadium, because I’m really pleased to see investments in youth development paying off — not just as the commissioner of the league, but also as a longtime U.S. Soccer [Federation] board member.”
Garber praised sporting director Ernst Tanner for leading that effort — and for taking it to a level beyond what Earnie Stewart did before leaving to become U.S. Soccer’s sporting director.
“I think the big turnaround with this club was with Jay and his partners recognizing they needed a technical director that would be able to not just be focused on youth, but understand how to play in the transfer market,” Garber said. "Earnie is going to be an unbelievable technical director for U.S. Soccer, but I think Ernst brought a lot more professional soccer experience. And when he came in, he had a very different strategy — and a very focused one, to utilize their resources in an effective and efficient way.”
Garber called Tanner “a really smart guy. He’s a leader among our chief soccer officers, and I think we should see more success out of this club."
The commissioner has another reason to want the Union to succeed. MLS’ TV deals will be up at the end of 2022, and the next round of rights fees will be bigger if the league’s big-city teams are winning and popular.
They certainly are in Los Angeles, where the star-studded Galaxy-LAFC rivalry has become the league’s top TV attraction. It will be even more of a spectacle this year, because the Galaxy have added Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. The regular-season matchups will air on big broadcast networks, one each on ABC and Fox.
Atlanta United is pulling its weight as the capital of the South, winning trophies and drawing league-leading crowds. The Chicago Fire are moving from the suburbs back to Soldier Field downtown, their original home, and have a big-money new owner in Joe Mansueto. Expansion team Inter Miami has South American flair on the field and David Beckham in the owner’s box.
But in many big markets — including Philadelphia, New York and Boston — MLS is sometimes barely on the radar.
“We have, unfortunately throughout the years, had some of our smaller markets be our most popular teams,” Garber said. “And that’s great, but we’ve got to get our bigger markets — who have way more competition, and have a lot of history that they’re working through and working against — I’m looking forward to seeing them be more successful.”
The use of unfortunately might have been a slip of the tongue, or a little too much honesty. It likely won’t play well in Portland, Cincinnati or Orlando, where MLS is front and center. But it will resound in Houston and the Bay Area, top-10 TV markets with teams that don’t measure up.
“It’s way easier to be new than it is to be improved, right?,” Garber said. “I think a lot of our new markets are driving enormous energy leaguewide, and some of our legacy markets are taking a look at it and saying, 'You know what? If they can do it there, we ought to be able to do it here.’ ”
That energy helped fuel this offseason’s biggest success story: a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that lets MLS enter its 25th season with unprecedented strength.
The players won immense gains, and while owners got their share, they also acknowledged that as with other American sports, spending more money is a good thing.
“We were able to get our negotiating team and our ownership group to understand and recognize some of the things that were really motivating the players to be organized, and to be thoughtful about what they wanted to see Major League Soccer be over the years to come,” Garber said. "It’s not the most fun job in major-league sports to be involved in CBA negotiations. This one was productive, it was constructive, and frankly, I think it was a positive outcome for the league and for the players.”
It was for everyone else, too.