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Don Garber backs off reports that MLS is looking at changing its playoff format

“If we can come out where tomorrow is better than today, we’ll do it,” he said, “and if we can’t, we won’t.”

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber
Major League Soccer commissioner Don GarberRead moreRichard Drew / AP

LOS ANGELES — Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber hit the brakes Thursday on reports of a forthcoming overhaul of the league’s playoffs, but he didn’t entirely rule it out.

The Athletic and ESPN reported last week that the league is looking at scrapping its single-game-round knockout format for a World Cup-style tournament with a group stage followed by knockouts. The news prompted an unsurprising backlash from fans who like the current way, with its drama and emphasis on home-field advantage earned through the regular season.

Nor does it help that MLS has changed its format more than a dozen times in its 27-year history, tweaking the formats of rounds and the number of teams that qualify.

“I think that the playoff format that we have has been fantastic, and amongst the most exciting playoffs we’ve ever had,” Garber said at a news conference setting up Saturday’s Union vs. Los Angeles MLS Cup final (4 p.m., Fox 29, Univision 65 and TUDN).

“That’s reflected in attendance and television ratings and buzz, and led to where we are today,” Garber continued.

» READ MORE: The Union's longest-tenured players celebrate their first trip to MLS Cup

But not surprisingly, there was a “but” coming.

“But I’m convinced as our league continues to grow, soon to be 30 teams … you need to evolve your competitive schedule and your competitive format,” Garber said. “The league doesn’t sit behind a curtain, the mighty Oz curtain, and make these decisions because we think it will be fun. We do research with our fans, we speak to our media partners, we gauge what the interest and buzz and energy is around playoffs when they’re taking place.”

He said a moment later that, “I don’t think any of the changes that we’ve ever made in these competitive changes have been bad — most people would agree with that.”

Garber is right on both of those counts. So would the proposed change make things so much better? Fans seem to think not, and Garber signaled that they’ll be listened to in upcoming research.

“If we can come out where tomorrow is better than today, we’ll do it,” he said, “and if we can’t, we won’t.”

» READ MORE: Union manager Jim Curtin played in the last MLS Cup final between No. 1 seeds, 19 years ago

Backing Merritt Paulson

Garber gave strong backing to Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who is at the center of the scandal over abuse allegations in women’s soccer. Former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates named Paulson as one of many power brokers who allegedly knew of accusations against former Thorns manager Paul Riley, but did not act on them.

On Oct. 11, Paulson said he was stepping down as CEO of both teams. The day before that, he fired president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub. But Paulson has not yet said he’ll sell the teams, despite loud protests by fans and a major backlash from sponsors.

“We at this time don’t see any reason at all for Merritt to sell the Timbers,” Garber said, a quote that drew an immediate spotlight.

“Obviously, Merritt has very publicly acknowledged the mistakes that he and the organization have made,” Garber continued. “He’s taken responsibility for those decisions that he’s made, and I think that the steps that he’s made in terms of stepping aside, and bringing in a new CEO, and a termination of two long-term employees — which we supported — were steps in the right direction. So there was nothing that came out in the report that would have us think any differently from what I just stated there, right now.”

» READ MORE: U.S. Soccer promises action after Yates investigation details abuse and sexual coercion in NWSL

Praise for the Union

Saturday’s MLS Cup final will be a clash between Los Angeles FC’s big spending on stars and the Union’s emphasis on its youth academy and under-the-radar scouting. Garber obviously likes LAFC’s way of earning both headlines and wins, but he has long had a soft spot for the Union’s philosophy. He said so again on stage.

“Philadelphia is really a model about how you could bring in the people that understand our system and have a strategy and stick with that strategy,” he said. “And use all of the tools that are available to you, that are not just about spending money on designated players, and drive success.”

He specifically praised the Union’s youth academy, which has become one of the best in MLS with alumni including Brenden and Paxten Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and Jack McGlynn.

“What they’ve been able to do with their academy system, I think, is a model in our league,” Garber said. “Frankly, I think it’s a model in professional sports. European teams are scouting throughout the Union academy and have for many years, and just look at the players that have come on through.”

» READ MORE: Union sporting director Ernst Tanner: Beyond the pitch

Apple bites

There were many questions about the league’s 10-year, $250-million-per-year worldwide broadcast rights deal with Apple that starts next season.

MLS has yet to announce any hires of broadcasters or producers for games or studio shows, including a much-anticipated whip-around show that will be like NFL Red Zone for soccer fans.

Garber said that the deal “doesn’t start for a while” and the league has “got a lot of runway,” even though the 2023 campaign starts in just a few months.

“I read articles that we’re behind — we’re not behind,” Garber said, a reference to a recent feature on the subject by The Athletic. “We certainly will be launching our season with Apple with great production teams, with all the bells and whistles that we’ve been talking about. So stay tuned, as we’ll be soon announcing a brand and soon announcing some of the things that will be the innovations that we’ll have in that new relationship.”

MLS deputy commissioner Gary Stevenson also told The Inquirer that plans are in the works for a package for bars and restaurants to buy to get games on their TVs.

» READ MORE: Apple TV becomes the new home of Major League Soccer with a 10-year deal for every game