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MLS Looks Way Down the Field

With the season starting Saturday, Garber sets his sights on the future of the league, which is focused on building soccer-specific stadiums.

March 29, 2006|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Ever since becoming Major League Soccer's commissioner in 1999, Don Garber has talked a good game, and continues to do so.

Garber was in Los Angeles recently, briefing reporters about the league's 11th season, which begins Saturday.

MLS no longer had concerns about its long-term viability, he said. Instead, the focus now was on the future.

"It's about what do we need to do to go forward and continue the growth of professional soccer in the United States," he said.

"What are our priorities? How do we get deeper engaged within the Hispanic community? How do we get all those kids who play to be fans? How do we get the media to think about us as a priority, as opposed to an afterthought? How do we get more stadiums built? How do we expand our league and get into those markets that we feel we need to be in in order to be a national league?

"We're making progress in all of those areas."

As proof, Garber pointed out that what was a 10-team league with no stadiums of its own in 1996 had become a 12-team league with four stadiums in 2006, and would be a 16-team league with 10 stadiums by 2010.

Toronto, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, will join MLS next year and become not only the league's 13th team but also its first Canadian venture and the first MLS club to make its debut in its own stadium.

Another team "in the Midwest" will be added in 2008, Garber said. St. Louis is considered the strongest candidate.

Last week, MLS announced its intention to locate a team just outside Philadelphia, on the condition that a soccer-specific stadium be built as part of a larger sports and commercial complex on the campus of Rowan University near Glassboro, N.J.

The league has reached an agreement, Garber said, "totally based on the model of the Home Depot Center," which was built on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills and is home to the Galaxy and Chivas USA.

The commissioner described the Delaware Valley as "a market that we desperately want to be in and have been trying to get into for the last 10 years. Right now, that's looking like it will be an expansion team in 2009."

A return to Northern California, where the San Jose Earthquakes played for 10 seasons before being moved to Houston this year, also is in the developmental stages.

"We are making progress in discussions with investors to look at taking an option to buy the rights to develop an MLS stadium up in the Bay Area, as well as having the rights to purchase an MLS team," Garber said. "We hope to make an announcement in the next 30 days."

Whereas name players were the early driving force for MLS, soccer-specific stadiums now "are a big driver of our business and an indication of the stability and success of the league," Garber said.

The Chicago Fire opens its new home in Bridgeview, Ill., in June, with the Colorado Rapids and Toronto set to follow suit in 2007. Garber said Real Salt Lake will have its stadium by "2008, 2009 at the latest," and that the New York Red Bulls, formerly the MetroStars, and the planned Midwest team would open their stadiums in late 2008.

As a further indicator of the league's health, MLS season-ticket sales rose by 25% this off-season, the highest jump in league history, Garber said.

In addition, MLS soon will announce new television contracts with ABC, ESPN and Univision. These will take effect in 2007 and will include "the first rights fees that MLS, and I believe professional soccer, has ever had from major network broadcasters," he said.

The recent sale of the MetroStars by AEG to Austrian businessman Dietrich Mateschitz for $50 million or more and the subsequent renaming of the team as the New York Red Bulls is "just an absolutely unbelievable statement as to where we're going," Garber said.

The sale was "part of a plan to have AEG decrease its holdings in MLS," he said, adding, "We're pushing Hunt Sports to do the same thing."

Lamar Hunt and family own the Columbus Crew, Kansas City Wizards and FC Dallas.

The Galaxy, Fire, D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo remain in AEG hands, but Garber said he expected Houston to "be sold to a local investor in years to come."

"The first 10 years, we needed multiple team owners," he said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, we hope to have one team, one owner. Our owners are committed to that vision."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

MLS 2006

Facts and figures regarding the 11th season of the MLS, which opens Saturday:

* Openers: The season begins with a rare two-game weekend at the Home Depot Center. The Galaxy meets New England in a rematch of last season's MLS Cup, at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2), and Chivas USA gets its second season underway with a 4 p.m. game against Real Salt Lake on Sunday.

* New digs: Chicago will move into its new stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., on June 25 against New York. Bridgeview Stadium joins the Home Depot Center, Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, and Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, as soccer-only facilities used by MLS teams.

* New names: With New York having been sold to Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, the MetroStars have been renamed after its owner's best known product, the energy drink Red Bull. The San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston, and changed their name to Houston 1836. When the new name, referencing the city's founding after the defeat of Mexican troops, proved insensitive to many in the Mexican American community, the nickname was changed to the Dynamo.

* Summer diversion: As in 2002, MLS will go up against the World Cup, with 40 league games scheduled to be played while most of the soccer world's focus is on Germany from June 9 to July 9.

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