MLS Commissioner Don Garber is excited to come to Kansas City next week for the MLS All-Star Game, which will pit the league’s best players against AS Roma at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sporting Park.
Of course, as the commissioner, he’s obligated to declare such things, but there’s a genuine sense that MLS is excited to showcase the job Sporting Club has done transforming Kansas City into middle America’s soccer Mecca.
“We’re very proud and very impressed with what’s happened in Kansas City,” Garber said. “We’re also very appreciative of the support and commitment from (Sporting Kansas City owners) Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig, Robb (Heineman) and the rest of their partners. It really is one of the great success stories in our sport.”
Formed in the wake of the 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer is roughly halfway through its 19th season, but that’s a mere toddler in terms of building a top-tier professional sports league.
“When we take a step back and look at what’s happened with MLS over the last several years, we certainly do feel good about it,” Garber said. “There’s been lots of growth — in terms of the number of teams, the size and scale of our fan base, our business metrics, the number of committed owners and connected teams.
“It has us feeling that soccer in America has truly arrived, but we know that we’re still in the first phase of this process. We still have a lot of development in front of us both on and off the field.”
MLS hopes to be regarded as one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022, a decade-long commitment Garber set forth last season.
“That’s a bold vision and something we’re going to have to work very hard to achieve,” Garber said.
World Soccer magazine, a British publication with the pulse on all things “football” (the preferred term for the sport across the pond), ranked MLS as the seventh-best soccer league in the world three months ago.
It’s a testament to how far the sport has come in the U.S. that only Germany’s Bundesliga, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Brazil’s Serie A and Mexico’s Liga MX are more highly regarded the MLS.
“We didn’t expect it and weren’t part of the evaluation process, but I’d say that, when we saw the article, we were pleasantly surprised,” Garber said. “But in no way does it have us feel like the job is done. If anything, it motivates us that the goal of being one of the top leagues in the world is in our sights.”
Sporting KC, which has sold out 27 consecutive MLS matches including the playoffs, and its turnaround are a prime example of how far MLS has come and what’s possible for soccer in the U.S.
“Kansas City is really a model example of what we hope to be able to achieve in every market, both those that exist today and those that might enter the league sometime in the future,” Garber said. “Committed owners, passionate fans, great team on the field, fantastic stadium, enormous relevance in the community and a brand that resonates and matters. That’s something we have in many markets, but not all and we need to get there in all of our soon-to-be 20 team markets.”
These are indeed high times for the nation’s top domestic soccer league, which announced the addition of a 20th team, New York City FC, in May.
The new club, which is co-owned by Manchester City and the Yankees, is expected to begin play in 2015 and hired Claudio Reyna away from U.S. Soccer to become the director of football operations.
On Thursday, D.C. United announced a tentative deal to build a new stadium, beginning in earnest a long-sought and much-needed transition from playing in rundown RFK Stadium.
“That’s something the club has been working on for really 20 years,” Garber said.
Among other positive trends, Garber cited an MLS-heavy roster powering the U.S. men’s national team to a fifth consecutive CONCACAF Gold Cup final Sunday against Panama.
“We’re seeing the MLS player have more profile and prominence on the U.S. national team, which is something that we’re very excited about,” Garber said.
Increased sponsorship, including an eight-year deal with Microsoft and Sporting KC’s new jersey sponsor (locally owned Ivy Funds), also highlight a banner year for MLS.
There’s plenty of reason to celebrate, so hopefully Kansas City is ready for an appropriately festive week.