But Garber still contends that even after 17 years of existence, MLS has a lot more work to accomplish its goal of becoming one of the world's top leagues.
With the MLS All-Star Game heading to the Union's PPL Park in Chester on Wednesday, the Daily News sat down with Garber at MLS headquarters in New York to talk about the state of the league:
Daily News: From where this league began after the success of the 1994 FIFA World Cup [MLS began play in 1996], to where it is today, do you look back and see how much things around the league itself have changed for the better?
Don Garber: When you live this job every day, it's hard to look back at where things where 2 years, 5 years or even 10 years ago. Instead, what we try to do here is learn from our mistakes and try to really understand the market and make decisions based on strategy, as opposed to by gut, which is what I think was done in years past. It's about continuing to move the league forward every day. We feel reasonably good about where we are. There's no doubt the U.S. has become a soccer nation, and now with Canada joining MLS, I believe we are much more relevant and credible today. I take a lot of pride in that, but we still have a long way to go.
DN: In its infancy, it appeared MLS' strategy was to bring over aging Euro stars to prove relevance. Today, the focus seems to be more on building and showcasing the talents of American players. What changed?
DG: Today, we have a dual strategy, and the first part of that strategy is to do everything we can to build the U.S. national teams, to develop it in every way and to use our clubs and their developmental systems to do so. It's all about making the American player better. That ultimately will build homegrown American stars that fans can connect with in local markets and what we believe will lead to a better, more successful U.S. national team, and the same holds true in Canada. But at the same time, all of our research has shown that the soccer fan in the U.S. and Canada wants to see international stars. They are watching them play in the [English Premier League] on Saturday and Sunday mornings; they are watching these players participate in either European championships and World Cups, and fans want to experience that caliber of player playing in their hometown with an MLS jersey on. It simply just adds to the excitement.
DN: One of the things MLS moved away from was holding games at massive venues, and urged teams to construct more intimate venues specific for the sport. Do you believe that the idea of building soccer-specific stadiums not only helped to provide relevance, but ultimately saved the league?
DG: I don't believe Major League Soccer at any time needed to be saved, per se. I just think we needed to make decisions that ensured we continued to evolve and to continue grow a fan base and ensure financial stability and viability. Doubling down now, there has been a $2 billion investment on soccer-specific stadiums and academy facilities; it is just a great statement to the commitment our owners have to grow this sport.
DN: There has been talk of bringing a 20th team into MLS by 2014. Much of the talk has surrounded New York. How close is that from being a reality?
DG: There are many cities that are interested in expansion. Whether it's been talks [about] Orlando, Miami, Minneapolis, Atlanta; there is no shortage of potential markets. We've been focused on New York, because we really believe that there is an opportunity to build on the success that the Red Bulls have had and try to create a rivalry between those two teams. We think that this market of 13 million people can support two MLS teams, and we are going to continue to work hard with the city to finalize a deal on both the stadium, but also to secure an owner.
DN: Where do you think soccer falls in the American sports landscape.
DG: Look, we've only been around for 17 years, I know we are the new kids on the block. But we've able to grow a sizable fan base that I believe is becoming more knowledgeable about the sport and has teams in its town or close to it that it fully supports. This league just recently ranked seventh in attendance among soccer leagues in the world. That's a big deal to us, because that same data also shows that we give a lot of other leagues in this country a run, leagues that have been around for decades. I believe MLS can become one of the top-tier leagues not just in America, but worldwide. Are where there yet? No. But we're working on it. Every day.
Contact Kerith Gabriel at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sprtswtr.