By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 4, 2015) US Soccer Players - MLS commissioner Don Garber was on your TV this week, nominally spreading the word about Major League Soccer’s 20th championship game, set for Columbus, Ohio on Sunday. The game pits the hometown Crew, a team that has the league’s co-leader in goals scored in 2015, against the Portland Timbers, a side that boasts a newly minted US international in midfield. Both teams deserve their place in the title contest after impressive wins throughout the playoffs. Both teams are more than their individual talents.
There’s plenty to sell about the game, especially since it promises to be a fascinating tactical battle against a backdrop of fervent gold-clad support in enthusiastic Ohio. Columbus has never hosted an MLS Cup final, and with the change from neutral venues to home of the higher seed, there’s an excitement that is still new to the league.
But Garber’s media tour hasn’t been much about the game. On the few occasions he’s gotten questions about the MLS Cup final he has naturally obliged, but those instances are few and far between. Instead, most of the questions the MLS commissioner has fielded have related to the future of the league he’s in charge of shepherding. MLS is in a growth phase, if you didn’t know. That means the man whose responsibility it is to translate the message of 20+ owners to the general sports public doesn’t get to focus solely on the biggest game of the season.
Instead, it’s about expansion. Or salaries. Or the league’s place in the global hierarchy (read: how does MLS compare to European leagues?). Or any number of strategic positions the league is taking (or not taking) as it tries to make itself relevant in the United States and beyond.
Even questions about the MLS Cup Final aren’t really about the game itself. One of the questions Grant Wahl posed to Garber in an extensive interview at the Sports Illustrated soccer portal addressed the problem of the league’s marquee game sharing a timeslot with the NFL. Garber admitted that a Tuesday MLS Cup final might be possibility so that MLS could carve out an exclusive window. It’s not Wahl’s fault that so much of the league narrative focuses on things other than the game.
Everything is meta, because meta matters most. Major League Soccer is still years, perhaps decades, away having the lead up to its championship game be about... its championship game. It says plenty that the most visible MLS figure is Garber himself and not a player or coach. When it comes to selling the sport and the league, there isn’t a single person connected to the game itself that is better at pushing the MLS agenda than the man who makes the only seven-figure salary on the MLS books given to someone who doesn’t kick a ball for a living.
On the one hand, it’s a sad that we’re not quite there yet. This is not something with which the NFL, NBA, NHL, or Major League Baseball has to contend. While the commissioners of all of those leagues are well known, none of them is capable of overshadowing the championship round or the players and coaches who participate in it. Roger Goodell isn’t going to show up on a cadre of ESPN programming in the days ahead of a Super Bowl. It doesn’t serve his league at all for him to do so.
If the necessity of Garber’s busy week came down to the visibility of the two teams, it might be understandable. No one would argue that Columbus and Portland are the highest profile of the MLS retinue, though it would also be unfair to slap an “unknown” label on either one. Columbus has been around from the beginning, and did much to start the trend of soccer-specific stadium construction with the success of MAPFRE (nee Crew) Stadium. Meanwhile, Portland has carved out a very interesting type of notoriety thanks to their incredibly vocal home fans and the imagery they provide Providence Park.
This being MLS, it probably wouldn’t matter who had advanced to the final. Even a New York v. Los Angeles championship matchup would require Garber to take the lead on spreading the gospel of MLS to the uninitiated.
There are a lot of uninitiated.
Garber’s lead role is a marker of Major League Soccer’s progress, or lack thereof, and it’s necessary to point out that he’s pretty good at his job. The league still needs a salesman, a businessman, someone who will without fail push a positive agenda while at the same time adroitly outlining the plan for MLS from here into the indeterminate future.
Columbus vs Portland is a game for the soccer adept, though that necessarily diminishes the game in a way that is not intentional. From a soccer perspective, there’s a lot to be excited about. It’s not just Kamara and Nagbe, it’s a clash of similar style with exciting, speedy, athletic players. It’s the stage and the how individuals will respond. It’s the coaching choices of two of American soccer’s best and brightest. From a soccer perspective, it promises to be a lot of fun.
Of course, that doesn’t mean much in a crowded American sports landscape that treats the North American soccer league as a second or third-rate product. The NFL will be on Sunday, and there’s little doubt that MLS will have trouble standing out above that behemoth.
Let’s just hope Garber’s insane schedule this week wasn’t for naught. There’s a reason he out there. Much of it is to push MLS to the day when the commissioner doing the media rounds is no longer needed or necessary.
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