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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The boss comes to town: A City Hall discussion with Don Garber

MLS Commisioner Don Garber, center, greet Union Academy director
Tommy Wilson, right, and sporting director Earnie Stewart
Tuesday at YSC Sports in Wayne.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber toured the Philadelphia Union’s holy triangle of sites Tuesday – first Chester, then Wayne, then Philly – to see firsthand the infrastructure in which the club has invested so heavily in recent years.

Most of Garber’s remarks, to students at YSC Academy and then to a Town Hall audience at City Hall in Philly, centered on the Union and their situation within the MLS landscape. But in a one-on-one setting afterward, members of the media asked Garber some more pointed questions that went outside that local box.

A few highlights:

- First, a question from the town hall audience directed at Garber was aimed at the growth of the game via expansion and television. Garber said that the MLS TV contracts were set through 2022, but “we’re soon to announce over the top a social media package where games will be available on one of the more well-known social channels.” Feel free to speculate what that is, but there is recent precedent for experimentation in that realm. Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League have taken to Facebook, the NFL used Twitter to livestream games and YouTube has been the chosen platform for the U.S. Open Cup for several years.

- In February, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl published a report on a “Designated Player-level” prospect who elected not to move to an MLS club due in part to the legal climate in the United States. The player, a Muslim, reportedly did not feel safe in the U.S. in light of President Donald Trump’s (since reconfigured) travel ban on residents from seven Muslim-majority countries. (The player was not from among those countries, Wahl reported.)

Garber said he wasn’t familiar with Wahl’s report or the player or club in question, but he did say the league is monitoring how the executive order changes.
“I think the bigger issue is how is the most recent law going to impact all Americans and impact all businesses. We have a particular interest because of the number of international players we have. I don’t know who that player was and I haven’t spoken to him and I haven’t heard anything else about that specific player. But we are a league for a new America, and you look at those kids there, I pointed to the mayor to look at the diversity of those players that are in the Union Academy, that’s what makes our country great, that’s what makes our league great, and I hope that we’re going to be able to continue to represent the wonderful story of immigration and diversity of our country. But it is very premature. We, like all other sports leagues, are carefully monitoring what’s happening. As you can imagine, we are following it closely to ensure that we are able to operate our business in a way that reflects on our values and those things that really matter.”
As far as any concerns regarding MLS players carrying passports from any of the countries on the list being barred from re-entering the country if they were to travel to a game in Canada, for instance, Garber said: “Not at this point. … None. We have not had any issues, but we are closely monitoring it.”

- Another pressing issue is solidarity payments. This Vice Sports article gives the background to it; essentially in other parts of the world, clubs responsible for players' development before age 18 are entitled to a share of future transfer fees of that player up to a certain age. There’s a litany of reasons why this is problematic in the U.S., and the transfer of Alejandro Bedoya to the Union from FC Nantes last year triggered a suit from one of his youth clubs. Here’s Garber on the matter:

“We continue to have to work our way through the fact that there are certain guidelines and laws of the games as it relates to how FIFA structures the sport, primarily driven by the game in Europe, and what the laws are here in the United States. At times, those are in conflict. MLS is the biggest beneficiary of training and compensation payments because we’re obviously developing a lot of players. So we have no philosophical or economic objection to it. But we do need to work through the processes and agreements that were made when U.S. Soccer reached an agreement many years ago.

I believe there will be a resolution to it. Our Players Union has some issues with it because it does have an impact on a player’s, we’ll call it their value, because there are others that are getting compensated that they don’t participate in that opportunity. But I’m convinced that it’s resolvable and it’s probably on the path to resolution.”
Normally, these matters are decided by FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber. When Garber was asked if these decisions were in the hands of FIFA, he said no.
“It’s really in the hands of U.S. Soccer, the MLS Players Union and the handful of super clubs that have been in negotiations with U.S. Soccer. The contention, in my opinion, I don’t think it’s as contentious of an issue as it had been because we’re all talking and trying to find a resolution.”
(Perusing the DRC recent decisions about solidarity contributions, it would appear no decisions involving Bedoya or the other Americans have been rendered.)

- Expansion. How could expansion not come up? Unprompted, Garber reaffirmed the plan to halt constrain at 28 teams, with the bidding process completed Jan. 31 and the expansion committee reviewing them. (Do yourself a favor and read Brian Straus’ exhaustive review of the expansion candidates.) Garber said that “we don’t have a deadline date for selecting teams 27 and 28. We hope to be able to select 25 and 26 by the end of the year.” Early in the day at YSC, Garber expressed his excitement for Los Angeles FC to enter the league in 2018 and “likely David Beckham’s Miami team after that.” At City Hall, he went more cautious: “Perhaps in 2018 will be Miami. We’ll see if that comes to fruition.”

- The juxtaposition between Philadelphia and Chester was pretty clear Tuesday, from Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney fielding questions at the dais to Chester mayor Thaddeus Kirkland seated in the front row. That dichotomy between the city on the Union’s crest and the city in which is plays is reflected across the country in a number of markets. Garber believes there’s no consensus as to which model – an urban (read: more expensive, resource-intensive) site or a suburban stadium removed from the city center. Both can work sustainably under certain conditions, soccer specificity being one of the primary ones. Garber:
“That’s what our maturing, millennial population was looking for. As we see these new developments happening, we see there isn’t necessarily a formula. Certainly Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City is one of the great soccer stadiums, one of the great success stories in our league, and it’s way out of downtown Kansas City. But when I got off the plane and had a 15-minute car ride to downtown Atlanta and you can see all the urban energy, you say, ‘boy it’s probably a good idea we’ll be downtown with a new stadium in July.’ So the best way I can answer it is time will tell what the proper formula is. One thing though that is sacrosanct is that you need to be in a place that people find convenient and has access to public transportation. And if you have that and you have the right building, then you ought to be successful.”
- Since his portrait stared down from the wall of the Mayor’s Reception Room, might as well include this Garber quote about the centrality of former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s influence on bringing the Union to Philly.
“When the MLS book is written, one of the chapters is going to be about Gov. Rendell sitting down with Jay Sugarman and myself and the team president at that time and us saying, we want an expansion team here in Philadelphia and we need your help. The governor took a yellow pad out and said, ‘I’ve got it. It should be in Chester because that city needs to have an economic driver similar to what the casino has been able to do.’ And that’s proven to be a successful venture for the city and the state. In about an hour, (Rendell) said, ‘this is what I’ll do. Jay, this is what I need you to do. MLS, this is what I need you to do.’ And part of that was patience through the economic crisis, and everybody delivered. And now we have a team that is successful. … Without Ed Rendell, there is no Philadelphia Union."

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March 30, 2017 at 3:08 AM 

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