FRISCO, Texas — It was a memorable weekend for Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber as he was inducted in United States National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Commissioner of the league since 1999, Garber has overseen the growth of MLS from 10 teams and playing second fiddle in NFL stadiums to 26 and the growth of the soccer-specific stadium across the league. MLS has grown at a rapid pace and has attracted the attention of other sports owners, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who complimented the league during a Reddit Q&A.
Garber was emotional on stage when talking about his relationship with MLS president Mark Abbott and his family, thanking them for the sacrifices they have given for him to reach this stage.
“If I had to do it all over again, I might’ve thought a little bit more how meaningful it would’ve been standing up there,” Garber said to ProSoccer USA. “I give a lot of speeches and I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of really positive things of late, but I never expected how emotional I would be. In 20 years of working in this sport and going through a lot of the challenges that we went through. It all kinda hit me at once. How important this was for me, my family. I never expected to be in a Hall of Fame growing up as a kid. I went to college in Oneonta [N.Y.]. Cooperstown was a few miles away, and the Soccer Hall of Fame’s first iteration was in that city and I never even knew that it was there. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”
In 2001, MLS was on the verge of falling apart as many teams were losing money. The league was preparing to shut down unless Garber had a plan for a meeting at LA Galaxy investor-operator Philip Anschutz’s ranch. Garber referred to the meeting as a critical point in the league’s history and an important part in his speech and talked about that moment after the ceremony.
“It really was,” Garber said when asked if that meeting was critical to the league’s success. “We acknowledged, really for the first time, that those were times when we were really thinking about shutting the league down. Everyone knew that we were going to make some tough decisions but we were really deciding whether or not we were going to go forward.
“It showed the commitment of our owners and the incredible belief in American soccer and what MLS could be. We put together a plan to give them some options to look at and that plan is the plan that made MLS what it is today. Soccer stadiums, great media partners, grassroots programming, academies, player investment that led to designated players and so many other things that made MLS a league that we’re so proud of.”
On Oct. 12, MLS announced it found a potential investor for the Columbus Crew in the Haslem family, also owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, to prevent the Crew from relocating to Austin. Nothing is official yet, but Garber is optimistic both sides will be happy with the outcome.
“We still have work to do with Columbus and Austin but we’re all very focused to try and see if we could thread the needle and hopefully come out of the situation where everybody is feeling really good,” Garber said.
The continued expansion of the league is positive for Garber as he continues to see the sport grow year in and year out. He referred to the attendance figures of Minnesota United and Atlanta United this weekend and how the energy around the sport has continued to grow in the country.
Even with his Hall of Fame induction, he knows he has more work to do as the Collective Bargaining Agreement is entering its final year and more teams enter the league.
“There’s been so much expansion in the league and so many positive things going on and the markets that are been so energized,” Garber said. “Whether it’s Nashville or Cincinnati or Minnesota that will have 55,000 people tomorrow, or Atlanta that will have 72,000 at a game. There’s just a lot of energy around the sport.”