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MLS Owners Face Thinking Cap Time

They want ways to pump up product, maybe even bending salary rules to get marquee players.

June 18, 2005|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere between Major League Soccer as it is today and Tim Leiweke's vision of David Beckham in a Galaxy or MetroStar jersey lies reality.

It is Don Garber's job to find it.

Garber, commissioner of MLS for the past six years, has been entrusted with devising a plan to improve the quality of play in the 10-year-old league -- while at the same time not breaking the bank.

It's easier than pushing a rock up a hill, but not much.

League owners probably realized that when they met a couple of weeks ago on Phil Anschutz's ranch in Colorado.

Just before the meeting, Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts, former president of the Utah Jazz, New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden, was asked about the state of MLS.

"The canvas is not completely bare," he said, "but we've got a lot of painting to do still with this league."

Garber and his staff have been instructed to find the brushes and oils to fill in some of the blanks. Not down the road, but in the next few months.

"It was the first time the owners got together and threw the agenda into a wastebasket and, for a day, talked about the future of our sport, the future of our league and where we go from here," Leiweke said.

As president and chief executive of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), Leiweke oversees Anschutz's five MLS teams, a number that will be down to three by the end of August once the sales of D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes are completed.

The consensus among the owners was that more money needs to be invested in MLS, particularly in player acquisition, so that the standard of play continues to rise.

In addition, they agreed large markets such as Los Angeles and New York need more marquee players if they are to reach their potential.

If that means bending salary cap rules so that, say, Juan Pablo Garcia can be brought to Jorge Vergara's Chivas USA, or Beckham can be brought to AEG's MetroStars, so be it.

"Everybody is on the same page, and we were all in agreement at the end of it as to where we go," Leiweke said.

"We don't want to get caught up in the transfer wars that all of the European clubs seem to be caught up in. But at the same time I think there's an understanding that we all want to improve the quality of play here."

Checketts agreed.

"To me, it's all about the level of talent in the game," he said. "How do we develop and then keep the best talent in this country? ... That, to me, is the whole issue."

Garber is supposed to come up with some hard numbers and ideas by the time the MLS board of governors meets at the All-Star game in Columbus, Ohio, on July 30.

"I don't think any owner, AEG or otherwise, believes that you can spend yourself to success," Garber said. "What we need to do is look at what kinds of moves make economic sense, on the field and off the field.

"And it doesn't just mean just paying our current players more money. It means ... strategically spending to keep young American players playing here as opposed to pursuing their careers overseas."

Garber cited the commitments D.C. United made to Freddy Adu and the Galaxy gave to Landon Donovan and said the league was about to similarly invest in Eddie Johnson of FC Dallas.

How to attract and keep top players within the constraints of the salary cap is the thorny task facing Garber and his staff.

"I believe in salary caps," Checketts said. "If you look at the most successful sports league in America, the NFL, they have two things. ... Everybody shares revenues, and they have a salary cap. Maybe there's a third thing, which is the lack of guaranteed contracts. So that if a guy's just not cutting it, you can get rid of him.

"Those three things to me are the absolute critical things about a sports league. ... But we're going to have to generate more revenue. The national television deal in 2007 is critical. And then we're going to have to spend what it takes to keep the best talent in America."

There is concern that because Anschutz has the deepest pockets among the six MLS owners, AEG teams will be tempted to outspend the rest and thus dominate.

When AEG this week named Alexi Lalas as president and general manager of the MetroStars, Lalas did little to ease such fears.

"As far as I'm concerned, the more resources and the more we can go after [star players] the better it is for our fans and the better it is for our product," Lalas said. "We need to step it up. ... I think the other owners, whether they're dragged along kicking and screaming, they're going to have to react."

Checketts said there would be no kicking or screaming.

"There are too many good owners in this league to let one owner destroy the league," he said.

It is up to Garber to find a way to make it all work.

"This is just one more step in our evolution," he said, "and it goes to show that [the owners] know that this is a process that has a beginning and a middle and an end, and that end is not for generations. We've not yet reached the middle. We're still at the beginning."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How they stand

A rundown of the MLS teams, their owners and the status of the franchise and stadiums:

*--* Team Owner Status Chicago Fire Phil Anschutz Stadium under construction in Bridgeview, Ill. Chivas USA Jorge Vergara Sharing Home Depot Center with the Galaxy. Colorado Rapids Stan Kroenke Stadium scheduled to open in 2007. Columbus Crew Lamar Hunt Crew Stadium in place. D.C. United Phil Anschutz Sale in progress, stadium planned in Washington. FC Dallas Lamar Hunt Pizza Hut Park stadium to open in August in Frisco, Texas. Galaxy Phil Anschutz Home Depot Center stadium in place. Kansas City Wizards Lamar Hunt Sale pending, possible relocation. MetroStars Phil Anschutz Planned stadium awaiting approval in Harrison, N.J. New England Revolution Robert Kraft Stadium under consideration. Real Salt Lake Dave Checketts Stadium site being sought. San Jose Earthquakes Phil Anschutz Sale and relocation to Houston pending. -- Grahame L. Jones

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