Don Garber backs lower divisions but says MLS not to blame for NASL peril
As U.S. Soccer determines the fate of the North American Soccer League, MLS commissioner Don Garber said he believes in successful lower divisions in the U.S. and Canada -- and that his league had nothing to do with NASL's possible demise.
"We're a firm believer that having a vibrant and successful lower-division structure in the U.S. and Canada is going to help grow the game at all levels," Garber said via telephone.
"The fact that MLS has been stronger and increasingly popular, that's allowed us to lift the game up from the bottom and to be able to withstand some instability below us. That's OK, because we've gone through some of those challenges many, many years ago."
Multiple reports in recent weeks have said the NASL's future is in peril. The league -- which currently constitutes the second tier in the North American pyramid -- started 2016 with 12 teams. But since the conclusion of the campaign, the NASL has seen Minnesota United depart for MLS, while the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Ottawa Fury joined the third-tier USL.
Rayo OKC is expected to fold, while the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and the Jacksonville Armada are in financial trouble, as is the league's flagship team, the New York Cosmos. That leaves just six other teams; Edmonton FC, Indy Eleven, Miami FC, North Carolina FC, Puerto Rico FC, and expansion side the San Francisco Deltas.
The NASL had previously stated that its goal was to achieve Division I status alongside MLS. That proved to be misguided given MLS' greater financial muscle and close relationship with the USSF.
"I think that [the NASL's] strategy was one that didn't have full alignment amongst all their owners, and that is a really important aspect of what any league needs in any sport in any country in order to be successful," Gaber said.
Meanwhile, the USL, finished the 2016 campaign with 29 teams with four others joining in 2017. The USL has since petitioned the U.S. Soccer Federation to sanction it as a Division II league, though that decision -- and how the NASL will be affected -- has still not been made.
The USL has been tightly coupled with MLS, with 11 top-flight clubs operating reserve teams in the league, while many others have affiliations with USL teams.
"I don't believe the USL is having the same issues that he NASL is going through," Garber said. "They are growing at an unprecedented pace, they are taking a leadership role in trying to sort all this out.
"They have forged a very important strategic relationship with our clubs that's allowing for the development of players, but also for providing fan connections in many, many cities throughout North America, and I think that's very positive."
As for the sanctioning issue relating to the USL and the NASL, Garber attended meetings of the USSF board of directors last week, and said he's confident the situation will be resolved.
"I know [USSF president Sunil Gulati] has been very engaged, as has the U.S. Soccer Pro Standards Council, in trying to ensure that there is a positive and viable structure going forward," he said. "I'm hopeful that when the dust settles, that's what we're going to end up with."
Garber also denied that the MLS had anything to do with the NASL's current difficulties.
"We have never competed in any market in the NASL," he said. "There were quite a few NASL owners -- and USL owners -- who as they saw the opportunity that could be delivered to their investors, their fans, and most importantly their respective communities, thought they would be better served by being an MLS team as opposed to having a team in the lower division.
"I want to be very clear about that. At no time did MLS ever reach out to a lower-division team and pitch them on leaving their league and coming into MLS. In every case the opposite has been proven to be true."
Garber indicated that the statement includes new arrival Minnesota United, which is scheduled to begin play in MLS in 2017. Minnesota United won the rights to an MLS expansion team by beating out a bid from the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Garber insisted that MLS did nothing to force the club's hand in leaving the NASL for MLS.
"We were approached by Bill McGuire to come into MLS," he said. "When that bid was made public, we were approached by the Vikings, who provided an alternative plan that included a potential new team to be playing in their new football stadium. Then we had a competitive process and selected Bill and his group and are incredibly excited about them joining our league next year, and playing in their new soccer stadium in 2018.
"But if anybody has any belief that we sought any club in the lower divisions to come into MLS, they're just absolutely wrong."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.