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Don Garber gives MLS State of the League address: ‘We need to become more of a selling league’

ATLANTA — MLS commissioner Don Garber shifted his stance from being a “league of choice” to one that sells players during his state of the league address Friday ahead of the MLS Cup final between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers.

“We need to become more of a selling league,” Garber said. 

“As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your marketed to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train. 

“We all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold.” 

Garber added the league is trying to strike a balance between teams retaining their stars — or at least keeping them in MLS — and its place in a global sport. 

“We have been buying for so long, and then as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development,” Garber said. “We’ve got to have something that turns this model around, or else it’s going to be unsustainable.” 

He referenced Canadian star Alphonso Davies, who was recently sold to Bundesliga juggernaut Bayern Munich, as a “positive thing for the league.” 

Talk of soccer-specific stadiums in MLS also came up. Atlanta United plays in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which it shares with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL. The Five Stripes have experienced almost-unprecedented success with their stadium situation. 

It’s been enough for Garber to consider backing down from smaller, soccer-specific stadiums in all markets. He added he would want a larger building to be shared, rather than an MLS side being a tenant in an NFL facility. 

“I still believe this about about building soccer-specific stadiums in the right locations,” Garber said. “But every now and again, you have something that shocks you. What’s been happening in Seattle is the first example of that. The team’s still averaging over 40,000 fans a game. What’s happening here in Atlanta continues to astound me. 

“I think we’re probably we’re more open to thinking about it, now that we’ve seen two examples of success with large stadiums. The model, clearly, is still focused on smaller facilities.” 

Another topic was the MLS All-Star Game, which is heading to Orlando City Stadium in 2019. When the league announced it would bring one of its marquee events to Central Florida, Orlando City SC majority owner Flávio Augusto Da Silva hinted at a possible change in the format of the game. 

Garber shut that down Friday afternoon. The typical format of the MLS All-Star Game pits the best players from across the league against a top international club. 

“I don’t see that it’s going to change,” he said. “We had been talking about the Mexican league [Liga MX] playing its all-stars against ours. I think that would be a pretty cool thing to do. That might be sometime in our future, but next year, we’re going to keep the format we have.

“Some of the more exciting games we’ve ever had have been against international clubs.”

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