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Don Garber quiet on MLS CBA talks, but says lots about Charlotte expansion bid

“All CBA negotiations are difficult, but with us, it’s not about taking things away,” the commissioner said Thursday, sounding a welcome note of optimism.

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber at a news conference back in April.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber at a news conference back in April.Read moreAlex Gallardo / AP

NEW YORK — Major League Soccer held its third and final Board of Governors meeting of the year on Thursday. It’s a safe bet that the expiring collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Association was one of the big talking points.

But when commissioner Don Garber emerged in the late afternoon to meet with the media, he offered only crumbs of detail on negotiations.

“They are in full swing,” Garber said, adding that the league and union were talking as recently as Wednesday. From there, he spoke only in generalities.

“It’s not the most fun part of the job, but you know, I’ve got hope and confidence that we’ll be able to reach an agreement," he said.

Asked how far along talks are compared to the last round (which ended in March of 2015), Garber said, “I can’t really comment on that.”

Garber has bargained through the media before. You know it’s that time when he announces that MLS teams lose money, as he did in September.

He also has sounded some positive notes, including saying multiple times this year that the league’s strict limits on charter flights will be loosened. The MLSPA would like the limit abolished. Some of the league’s more thrifty owners might not, as charters cost around $150,000 per one-way travel leg.

But there are plenty of owners who have the money, and others who will find it to improve their teams’ odds of winning.

“All CBA negotiations are difficult, but with us, it’s not about taking things away,” Garber said. “It’s how do we manage collectively, as a league and as a player group, to be able to provide more resources in a wide variety of areas that are manageable for ownership and acceptable to the players.”

While he didn’t want to talk about the CBA, Garber was happy to talk about some other big news: the push by Charlotte, N.C., to win the race for MLS’ 30th franchise.

Charlotte’s bid has big money from Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper — he’d be the eighth NFL team owner to have an MLS team — and savvy from former New York City FC executive Tom Glick. It’s the clear favorite over Phoenix and Las Vegas, whose bids have been on the table for longer, and Garber said negotiations are “very, very advanced.”

“The MLS board authorized the MLS expansion committee to enter into what I expect to be final negotiations with David to have Charlotte be our 30th team," Garber said. "No formal approval was granted today; what was approved was the expansion committee to now meet with David and his staff to try to finalize an agreement.”

Charlotte’s bid still has hurdles to clear, though. The Panthers’ 75,523-seat Bank of America Stadium, which would host the team, needs more locker rooms and new camera stands to be suitable for regular soccer games. Some of the renovation work could be paid for with public funding, which the city has not yet approved.

The venue also needs to look and sound good when the full house isn’t sold out, which it won’t be for MLS games. Garber said the Charlotte bid must “put together a dynamic in that stadium that will be up to the standards of all of our current soccer stadiums."

Garber said “there is no timetable” for approving the bid, but he is clearly optimistic. While he wouldn’t confirm what Charlotte’s expansion fee will be, he didn’t deny a report by Front Office Sports that it will be a league record $325 million.

The commissioner is used to this by now. A league spokesperson told The Inquirer that expansion has been on the agenda of every Board of Governors meeting for the last 15 years.

Garber also said something that raised eyebrows across the state in Raleigh, which has its own MLS bid.

“We also really like the city [of Charlotte] as a market — you know, the Carolinas have got a lot of really positive things going on,” Garber said. “We’ve seen some of those things come in support of minor league soccer, particularly in Raleigh, and women’s soccer, particularly in Raleigh. We think the market is larger than just the city itself.”

Charlotte and Raleigh are nearly 150 miles apart, a drive of just under three hours. Raleigh’s bid is led by Steve Malik, the owner of that city’s two current pro teams, the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage and men’s second-tier USL team North Carolina FC.

Garber spoke highly of Malik, but less highly of the bid.

“This is a very formal process: you’ve got to have a bid, you’ve got to have an application, you’ve got to have a stadium plan that’s something that can lead to finalization, you’ve got to have corporate support,” he said. “Steve Malik is a guy that I’ve got a close relationship [with], I really believe in, and there’s nothing in this that’s taking away anything with the city of Raleigh. I’ve spent time down there. But they have not submitted a formal bid, so it’s just not something that’s happening.”