The tour required two hours, with Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes guiding Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber through every nook and cranny of the Pinnacle training center. After its conclusion, Garber stood in the gym, the nucleus of the building’s medical advancements, and cited it as an example of growth in the league.
This has always been among the many responsibilities of his job — not only expanding the game but also promoting and selling that expansion.
Kansas City, he says, has becoming his leading exhibit.
“There’s a lot said about the big cities and the big markets, but the model franchise for Major League Soccer is right here,” Garber told The Star in an interview this week. “That’s in terms of how they approach their management of the business, the development of their stadium, their branding ethos, what they’re doing on the technical side in terms of winning games and winning championships. They check all the boxes. It’s become a showcase.”
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An ensuing pause gave way to an explanation of a deeper achievement here in Kansas City — one of the jewels of Garber’s 20-year reign as the league commissioner. During that tenure, MLS has swelled from 10 to 23 teams, but there’s a certain satisfaction in the preservation of Sporting KC.
Because just over a decade ago, Garber doubted the future of MLS in Kansas City. How could he not? As then-owner Lamar Hunt sough to sell the franchise, the league’s exhausted search to find a willing local buyer looked as if it would come up empty.
“We wondered if the league would survive here,” Garber said. “The Hunt family at that point owned multiple teams. They made a commitment to us that while they’d shoulder the burden of multiple teams at that time, we all knew they needed to get focused on one team, and they wanted the team in Dallas.
“We had struggled to find a local owner for Kansas City until we were lucky enough to meet Robb Heineman, who then introduced us to Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson.”
The ownership transition set in motion the turnaround of the franchise — a well-documented new branding, new stadium, new business model.
As Garber visited Kansas City this week for the official grand opening of Pinnacle, a shared facility between Sporting KC and U.S. Soccer, he was struck by the attention to detail. It’s a factor he says emerges with every trip he makes to Kansas City.
“There’s a focus on excellence here — on high performance in all areas of the business that is just really remarkable,” Garber said. “There’s no detail they don’t focus on. That comes out of Cliff Illig’s shared vision with his partners, and it’s pushed down to (team president) Jake Reid, Robb Heineman, Peter Vermes and everybody who’s involved with this club, whether it’s the groundskeeper or assistant equipment manager or head coach and technical director.
“It’s a great success story,” Garber continued. “This is a team that can be admired locally and respected throughout the league.”