Imagining MLS after Garber: Why 2018 will define the commissioner's legacy

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Don Garber is in the final year of his contract. He has brought MLS to new heights since taking charge in 1999, but the situation in Columbus, in particular, is the elephant in the room.

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Throughout the 21st century so far, everything under Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s domain has trended upward.

The league rebounded from the brink of extinction. It landed TV deals with actual rights fees. New clubs – particularly in Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta and Portland – raised the standard at the gate and on the field. With its stadiums, youth academies and investments in the women’s pro game, MLS lifted the sport as a whole in the United States and Canada.

Yet, when he steps up to the podium at the college draft in January, possibly for the last time, Garber will surely face a ballroom full of boos. And that’s just the start of a year in which his legacy could be happily secured or tarnished.

No commissioner is universally popular, of course. Someone’s always mad about something. And no commissioner is omnipotent. Garber may wield more direct power within MLS than the next U.S. Soccer president will have within the federation, but he still serves at the behest of team owners. If Eric Wynalda or Paul Lapointe were somehow given the keys to the commissioner’s office, they still couldn’t just wave a magic wand and bring promotion/relegation into reality.

But Garber hasn’t just been a passenger as MLS has taken off. He has fostered a creative environment that has yielded solutions to many of the league’s problems. Soccer United Marketing, for all the concerns over its opacity and cronyism in 2017, saved the league in 2002. Under Garber’s leadership, MLS found some flexibility in its rigid single-entity structure, ushering in Designated Players, Re-Entry Drafts and the strange currencies of allocation money that are befuddling but effective. For all of these innovations, Garber deserves a considerable amount of credit.

And, over the past few months, he deserves a considerable amount of blame. The tone-deaf anointing of SUM president Kathy Carter as the next U.S. Soccer president has angered a fan base crying out for change after the men’s World Cup qualification failure proved to be the last straw. The expansion process has dragged out and bogged down into an unseemly extortion of money, disappointing fans who have flocked to USL matches to demonstrate their cities’ readiness for top-flight soccer.

Worst of all, Garber seems to have been caught off-guard by the widespread anger over the possible (probable?) move of the Columbus Crew to Austin. The commissioner who eloquently eased the league through the relocation of the San Jose Earthquakes to Houston, then followed through on a promise to continue working to find San Jose an owner and a stadium, seems to have been replaced by a robot uttering gibberish about business metrics and failing to notice what Columbus means to MLS and U.S. Soccer supporters.

The annual state of the league press conference before MLS Cup this year tested Garber’s poise and patience like few other public appearances. Fifteen years ago, Garber enthusiastically faced down legitimate questions about the league’s survival. Several times, he has good-naturedly endured questions from demanding journalists such as Soccer America’s Paul Gardner. This time, he grew unusually testy as he faced question after question about Columbus. For the first time, he seemed weary of the job.

In that press conference, Garber reminded everyone (in response to a question, not unsolicited) that his contract expires at the end of 2018. He sounded anything but committed to signing a new one.

If Garber isn’t the right person to usher in MLS 3.0, there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with simply deciding 19 years is enough, and it’s time to settle down with his family. Few, if any, can match his record of building soccer in this challenging country.

But to tidy up and secure his legacy, he has two agenda items to complete in 2018.

1. Negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that takes the league forward

The current CBA runs through January 2020, but getting a deal done early does more than steer clear of the bad publicity of a labor standoff. A new deal could and should help the league shed the last vestiges of its centrally managed origins, demonstrating at last that it’s ready to do business the way it’s done in most of the world.

MLS no longer needs a player draft. It no longer needs restrictions on free agency that make little sense in an era of clubs searching the globe and spending transfer fees to bring in new talent.

What about Targeted Allocation Money and other salary quirks that tie Football Manager -- to say nothing of real-life front-office folks -- in knots? They’re an awkward method of helping the league spend more than it has in the past while also maintaining a bit of parity so the small-market teams aren’t left out. Under the current CBA, they’re confusing but necessary.

But the rest of the world has revenue-sharing mechanisms as well. Among them: Solidarity payments. They come up most often as a term of player transfers, and youth clubs have taken a dispute over DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer up to FIFA, but that’s not the only type of solidarity payment in international football. UEFA pays them to member associations, and top-flight leagues pay them to lower divisions. Swapping the TAM system over to a solidarity-payment mechanism would be complicated and might face union opposition, but if the league can offer unrestricted free agency (and no more involuntary trades) in return, negotiators have something to work with.

Garber can leave the thorny questions of promotion/relegation and calendar alignment to his successor. But if he can get the union to sign off on simplifying the league’s structure, he’ll make it much easier for talented players to flow in and out of MLS.

That leaves one item that’s simpler to say but harder to accomplish.

2. Keep the Crew in Columbus

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus 2017 is not San Jose 2005. Nor is it Chivas USA, the unlamented Southern California operation whose void will be more than adequately filled by LAFC. The Crew have local ownership interest (how strong it is, perhaps, is up for interpretation) and a stadium. The latter is sentimentally and vitally important. It’s the first stadium built for an MLS club. And it’s the site of legendary U.S. men’s national team wins over Mexico.

Moving the Crew would send a horrible message to any prospective MLS supporter, let alone any prospective MLS investor (including municipalities voting on stadium plans). You can do everything right – build a stadium, lead the league in attendance one year (albeit in the pre-Seattle days), forge community ties, and it can all be undone by a disinterested absentee owner.

Garber has to find a way to satisfy owner Anthony Precourt’s wanderlust – perhaps buying him out, as MLS did with Chivas USA, perhaps swapping his ownership rights to an expansion club – while keeping the Crew in Columbus.

The excuses are weak. The Crew’s stadium can be spruced up. The distance from downtown isn’t that bad, and it’s easily bridged with buses and other creative solutions. (Europe has a lot of stadiums farther from the city center than that, and they manage pretty well.) A good local ownership group should keep the Crew off the bottom of Garber’s metrics.

Austin has one of the world’s best music scenes, but its support for a professional soccer team is still unknown. Garber doesn’t want to sign off on this note. He shouldn’t.

Solve the Crew problem. Set the league on a path forward. Then let someone else take the helm. That wouldn’t be a bad way to wrap things up.

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