MLS commissioner Don Garber started off his annual visit to Minnesota United bright and early Thursday with a tour of the upcoming Allianz Field.
And he came out impressed enough to ensure future big games once the Loons' new stadium opens in 2019.
"Allianz Field is spectacular," Garber said. "It’s an architectural wonder, and I love the fact that it can be branded to different themes and different opportunities throughout the year with the different LED lighting. It will be one of the fully enclosed stadiums in our league and to think about how beautiful the skin is going to be when it’s fully completed. It will add to some of the architectural wonders here in the Twin Cities. ... I think it will be iconic for our league, and I think it will be iconic for our sport."
MLS has a theme of choosing new stadiums for All-Star games, such as this year with Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosting. Orlando City Stadium, which also opened last season, and Allianz Field would seem to be the next in line for that honor. But LAFC also just opened Banc of California Stadium and D.C. United is opening Audi Field soon, too.
"I know we will undoubtedly will host lots of games here [at Allianz Field] outside of league games, whether those are All-Star games or whether that is CONCACAF Gold Cup matches or other international matches, U.S. men’s and women national team games," Garber said. "Very centrally located. Lots of great things in and around it and perfectly sized and lots of amenities and revenue-generating opportunities. I think the future is going to be really bright."
Garber was very complimentary of the Loons, saying the club has a very strong brand despite an understandably challenging start on the field.
"They are doing everything right," he said. "When you are running a league, you have your problem children and then you have those that are the ones that you don’t worry about very much. I don’t go to sleep at night worrying about Minnesota United."
So then what did he think of United team captain Francisco Calvo's comments after losing to fellow 2017 expansion team Atlanta United earlier this season? Calvo said he was "tired of how Major League Soccer gives a lot of credit to Atlanta or LAFC" than to his team and thought the Loons deserved more respect.
"The league loves all its teams," Garber said. "You can’t control what fans or the media, what the broader sports industry does to evaluate one team's launch versus another. Atlanta has done a wonderful job. There is no doubt about it. You use the word outlier. Seattle was an outlier, and now you have another team that has been launched in a large city and has been able to capture the hearts and minds of the community, and we are very proud of that. I think that lifts up all clubs. Whether it’s our new teams or whether it’s our existing teams. It’s part of creating a broader global narrative that MLS is a league on the rise and is, in many ways, breaking all the perceptions of what professional soccer in North America could be. It almost seems like there are no limits. So as we start to think about how do we continue to expand across the country, we don’t measure that against each other. We just try to ensure that every team in its market is delivering on the expectations of its local fans and the public sector, our media and corporate partners. And I think this club has done a good job of that."
Other notes from the interview:
Garber commented on the success of Toronto FC despite its gutting loss on penalty kicks in the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday night.
"Although they had a heartbreaker last night in Guadalajara, just the immediate impact of the [targeted allocation money] investment on having our clubs be very, very competitive with Mexican teams," Garber said. "There was a time when it was unthinkable to win games in Mexico, and now we go down there thinking we could win against any of the top Liga MX clubs. We got so close last night."
The commissioner said the league is focused on raising the bar both on and off the field and tries to use technology and analysis to assess how to garner more fans of the league through outreach and team performances.
"Over my 18 years, what was sort of crisis management has now been turned into, how do you create and manage growth? How do you do that in a very strategic and systematic way so that we're still sleeping with one eye open and recognizing we’ve got a long way to go, but that eye that’s open is looking forward," Garber said. "Our vision is to be one of the top leagues in the world, and that’s a forward-thinking plan of ours. TAM allows us to make investments to get there, but it’s also the stadium and fan experience, and you’ll see more and more programs come out of that type of investment."
Garber also mentioned how renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement that expires at the end of 2019 is coming up while new media deals are also coming up in 2022.
"We want to be in a position where our audiences are growing, and they have been. Our television ratings are up across all three of our broadcast partners," Garber said. "We don't look at investment in the player pool independent of all the other things that we’re trying to do to make the league more relevant, more important, more connected with our fans."