Major League Soccer’s most glamorous team will appear in the league’s most electric setting this weekend when MLS Cup visits Seattle.
More than 40,000 fans are expected when the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy meets far-lower-wattage Real Salt Lake at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Qwest Field.
On Monday, MLS commissioner Don Garber painted a positive picture of this convergence of two very different clubs in a soccer-celebrating city.
“Obviously, it’s hard to say that you’d prefer one team over another and still keep your job as commissioner,” Garber said in a conference call with media. “But I certainly look at what other leagues have been able to achieve (when) their most popular teams in their largest markets with their largest fan bases get into their championships.”
Garber was referring to the Galaxy, led by David Beckham, Landon Donovan and former U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena.
However, Garber also spoke glowingly about frog-to-prince RSL, which progressed to the championship game despite an 11-12-7 regular-season record that made it the league’s lowest-seeded playoff qualifier.
“It’s good for the league, I think it’s good for fans,” Garber said. “I think it speaks to the concept of playoffs generally. It happens in many other leagues. The (New York Giants) had a 9-7 record when they won the Super Bowl. I think it’s important, particularly when you’re in an emerging sport, to have the kind of competition that can create compelling sustained interest. … We believe that the Real Salt Lake story is a very positive one.”
Garber was clear that there is no more fitting venue to end this season than Qwest Field, where expansion Seattle Sounders FC set an MLS record with an average attendance of 30,897 – almost twice the league average of 16,037.
An even larger crowd is assured for the MLS Cup final. The initial offering of 36,000 tickets sold out last week, so the league opened an additional 6,000 upper-deck seats.
“The launch of the Sounders, I think, will go down in history as one of the key moments in the history of the sport in this country,” Garber said. “… I think that it is arguably one of the best expansion launches in all of pro sports. But when you take a step back, the credibility that we have, the awareness that we have from the great success in Seattle on the field and off the field, gives us something that we’ve never had before, which is a real indication as to what the sport can be in this country.”
While Garber acknowledged the teams and the place make for a near-ideal finale to the season, he also indicated that the game may be moving past its need for a neutral site.
“There is support here in the league to really strongly consider moving MLS Cup … into a market where the team that earns the right to host it does so,” he said. “We obviously have a lot of logistical challenges that we’re working through to figure out if we’re able to pull it off.”
The issues include guaranteed access to stadiums that MLS clubs sometimes share, and securing enough hotel rooms for traveling fans and media.
However, Garber said attendance no longer ranks among his concerns.
“We (once) had a handful of markets where we questioned whether we’d be able to get the support,” he said. “(Now) I don’t believe that there’s any market in this country where if they got MLS Cup wouldn’t be able to do a really terrific job in a short period of time and get a very, very big passionate fan base.”
Other issues Garber touched on in an hour-long call:
• The collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players expires Jan. 31. Garber characterized negotiations, which have been going on for six months, as the typical ebb and flow. He stressed that the league believes it is in compliance with FIFA regulations, and he implied MLS would rather endure a work stoppage than sign a bad contract.
• Any change in the league’s designated player rules will be part of the collective bargaining agreement.
• MLS will retain its conference format next season.
• Philadelphia is approaching 8,500 season tickets for its inaugural 2010 season.
• A renovated BC Place stadium should be ready early enough in 2011 for the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps to avoid a temporary home. Its new roofing system could become a model for other MLS franchises playing in oversized stadiums, such as the Sounders.
• MLS expects to expand to 20 teams and then gauge its ideal size. Garber said there have been “productive” discussions about Montreal becoming the 19th team, but that there are no discussions or timetables regarding a 20th team.
• He is dismayed about the lower-division USL splitting into competing leagues, and he said he hopes the two sides mend their differences before spring.
• It is “very important” that the New York Red Bulls become a successful franchise. Garber said he believes New York ownership is “going to get it right,” and he called the new Red Bulls Arena “among the best small stadiums in the world.”
• Kansas City expects to break ground on a soccer-specific stadium by the end of the year. However, Garber said there has been less progress toward new stadiums in New England, the Washington/Baltimore area, San Jose and Houston. The commissioner said Houston could become “another Seattle” with a soccer-specific downtown stadium.
• The league will consider simplifying its playoff tie-breaking procedure.
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Major League Soccer announced its all-league team Monday, called MLS Best XI. Seattle midfielder Freddie Ljungberg was one of five newcomers and the only member of the Sounders chosen. The team, as voted by media, players, coaches and general managers:
Goalkeeper: Zach Thornton (Chivas USA).
Defenders: Geoff Cameron (Houston), Wilman Conde (Chicago), Chad Marshall (Columbus).
Midfielders: Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), Stuart Holden (Houston), Shalrie Joseph (New England), Ljungberg.
Forwards: Conor Casey (Colorado), Jeff Cunningham (Dallas).