MLS commissioner Don Garber gave his annual state of the league address Friday. And the state of the league is so good, Garber said, that he expects no major initiatives will be adopted for the coming season.
No news is big news for a league whose only constant has been change through its first 28 seasons. But then Garber has reason to embrace the status quo.
With Saturday’s sold-out MLS Cup final between LAFC and the Columbus Crew, overall attendance this season will approach a record 12 million, including the league-high 82,110 that showed up at the Rose Bowl on July 4 to see the Galaxy beat LAFC.
Digital and social media engagement and merchandise sales all set records, and the first season of the league’s 10-year, $2.5-billion media rights deal with Apple more than tripled the league’s previous single-season record for broadcast earnings. Viewership exceeded expectations for both the league and Apple, with more than 1 million subscribers tuning in for multiple games.
“It was the most successful season in our history,” Garber said.
“The greatest player to ever play the game made MLS his league of choice,” Garber said. “Lionel Messi had many options for the next chapter of his iconic soccer playing career. The magnitude of his decision to join MLS cannot be overstated.
“The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer, because the best player to ever play the game is here.”
So if the league’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it. Which — for the time being, at least — means no additional designated players, no additional allocation money and no expanded rosters.
The new playoff format, which included a controversial and widely unpopular three-game first round, will also remain and expansion, usually an annual topic of the commissioner’s address, has been paused. When San Diego joins MLS next season, it will become the league’s 30th team and Garber said that’s enough for now.
“We never thought the league would be as large as it is today,” he said. “So we have no plans to go beyond 30 teams at this point. But we never say never to anything. We’ve got to look at how all this develops over the next number of years. And if expansion makes sense at the right time, there’s a market with a facility and the opportunity for us to manage the competitive format and everything related to that, then we’ll certainly consider it.”
All that could change next week when the league’s board of governors meets in New York, but no major items are on an agenda that is expected to focus primarily on standard topics such as budget and commercial issues.
The 2024 schedule, which will be released Dec. 20, will not include a break for next summer’s 16-team Copa América, which will be played in 14 stadiums across the U.S., robbing many MLS teams of their best players, including Messi, for up to a month.
“We can’t afford it. So that’s a message for everybody,” Garber said of shutting the league down during the tournament. “If we have to shut the league down, it impacts our players, it impacts our partners, impacts our fans. It impacts everything that the MLS has to deliver for all of our stakeholders.”
The commissioner conceded that the event will affect MLS from both a scheduling and an attention standpoint.
“We’ve got to manage through that process and be clever and creative and figure out how do we reconfigure the schedule with all these different events so that we can make it work,” he said.
The league’s apparent unwillingness to consider expansion to the size of, or spending on, rosters was no doubt disappointing to many teams and players, although the board could take up some minor tweaks next week. Teams are limited to 30 players with a salary cap of $5.7 million for the first 20 roster slots. Teams are also allowed a maximum of three designated players, whose unlimited salaries count only partly against the cap, and can spend an additional $2.4 million in allocation money provided by the league.
But that is proving insufficient as MLS continues expanding its schedule. With the introduction of the month-long Leagues Cup tournament last summer, LAFC will be playing a league-record 53rd game on Saturday, a fixture crunch that forced the team to average a game every five days. As a result of fatigue and injury, just two players — Carlos Vela and Ilie Sánchez — appeared in every regular-season game for LAFC this year.
Other clubs, such as the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, played almost as many games, which left teams hoping the league would provide relief in the form of an additional DP spot or more spending to build their rosters. That doesn’t appear to be coming.
“If you want to consistently compete in finals and win these, you’re going to have to rethink your roster rules and regulations,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, whose team did not win any of the first five competitions it played in this season. “Money in this game buys quality players. Roster building is about … having deeper rosters and more players.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.