Philadelphia Union were treated to a visit by Commissioner Don Garber on Tuesday for the team’s March to Soccer week. Commissioner Garber visited with the Union’s technical staff and front office before departing for the Union’s Academy and then ending the day with a panel press conference at City Hall with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Union ownership and executives.
Throughout the day, Garber was taken with the culture and members of the Union organization. But his favorite part of the trip was the Union Academy, which he calls a world class facility.
“I had such a wonderful day here,” Garber said. “The Academy the Union have, seeing the 100 kids I had lunch with today, that is absolutely inspiring. I told them a couple of things, and one thing I said was, ‘Never forget it. You will always be a member of that Academy. You might end up an MVP of MLS, you might end up as a center forward for Real Madrid. But you’ll always have gotten your start in MLS playing for the Union Academy.’ And that’s not something we had 10 years ago.”
Garber became Commissioner of Major League Soccer in 1999, just the third season of the league. Coming from the National Football League, Garber’s influence as Commissioner has been extremely apparent across the sports universe. Perhaps the most visible measure of growth has been expansion. When Garber became Commissioner in 1999, there were just 10 teams. To kick off the 2017 season, there are 22 teams, with at least three more on the way.
“There’s a lot of growth and energy trying to build this league, for sure,” Garber said.
Last weekend to see Atlanta open up to 55,000 fans and I think we’ll have 35,000-plus fans in Minnesota, bringing LA in next year and getting a resolution and finalization to what the next number of teams will be.”
Another way to judge the growth of soccer in America has been the public’s perception of the sport. MLS is bringing in more viewers than ever to watch the game, and those viewers are younger than ever. No longer is soccer regarded as a second-tier sport; now it’s being included in the Big-5. Much of that growth is credited to Commissioner Garber, but he won’t take all the credit.
“We’ve all worked hard, we’re all in this together,” Garber said. “I’m just the guy talking in front of the cameras all the time. I represent the thousands of people who have been trying to build this league for the past 22 years.”
With all the growth and expansion, fans are rightfully looking toward the future. In 2021, MLS will celebrate its 25th anniversary, a celebration Garber hopes to be a part of. But he knows there’s still a lot of work to be done to get the league there.
“We’ve been thinking about the 25th,” Garber said. “We never really made a big deal about the 20th anniversary because we wanted to make something very special for the 25th. By then we’ll have many more teams and many more stories to tell. By then it will be a full generation, 25 years of support for the league. So we have a lot of activities planned.”