Nov 4, 2022 - Sports

MLS commissioner: "There are five major sports leagues now"

Photo illustration of Don Garber against a turf background and abstract soccer lines

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Shaun Clark/Getty Images

LAFC hosts the Philadelphia Union in Saturday's MLS Cup final (4pm ET, Fox), putting a bow on a season that saw the debut of Charlotte FC and the opening of the biggest soccer-specific stadium in the U.S.

Driving the news: I spoke with MLS commissioner Don Garber about playoff expansion, the league's landmark deal with Apple, Messi rumors and more.

Here are highlights from our conversation ...

Playoff expansion: The MLS postseason currently features 14 teams in a single-elimination format. But recent reports suggest the league could expand the playoffs from 13 games to as many as 30. Here's Garber:

There's been some energy around creating a format where every team has the opportunity to host a home playoff game. And we're looking at that, because home field advantage in our league really does matter.
You've got to balance the excitement of winner-take-all with the traditional home and away format that's part of soccer culture. So we'll take a look at it in the offseason. It's possible we end up with a changed format, but we're a long way from making any decisions.

2022 World Cup: The USMNT was once the singular American "product" at the World Cup. Now, with roughly 40 MLS players expected to compete in Qatar, there's another entity representing America on the world stage.

Back in the day, our ability to capitalize on the excitement of the World Cup — and our connection to it — was through the USMNT.
Today, it's just as important that we have players playing for Canada, or for Mexico, or Gareth Bale playing for Wales. ... I think we could have as many as six players playing for Ecuador.

Apple TV: Starting next season, all MLS games will be streamed exclusively on Apple TV, a groundbreaking deal that puts everything in one place (what a concept!). It should also help MLS grow internationally.

We're playing the global game but are not yet a global league — and Apple is a global company that can help us expand our reach.
And it isn't just about growing the fanbase — it's also growing awareness among players who might want to play here. Whatever country they're in, they'll be aware of MLS because of the exposure through Apple.

2026 World Cup: The U.S., Canada and Mexico will co-host the first 48-team World Cup in 2026. It's an event that could change the trajectory of North American soccer, and preparations have already begun.

I think it's rare in any business, or even in life, that you know exactly where you're going to be four years down the road and are able to plan for it. That's what we have with the World Cup.
There's a countdown clock to [an event] that will capture the attention of everybody in our three countries. From the pros to youth soccer, we're all looking at how we can use the run-up to 2026 as rocket fuel.

Messi buzz: Inter Miami is "increasingly confident" that Lionel Messi could sign with the club after his PSG contract expires this summer, The Athletic reported last week. I asked Garber about the rumors.

Obviously any time there are discussions or rumors about arguably the best player of a generation coming to your league, it's super exciting. But, importantly, he is under contract.
Should he decide that he wants to be in MLS soon or in the future, I'm sure he would be welcome with open arms.

Big Four vs. Big Five: With so much talk about Sports Equinoxes lately, I asked Garber if he thinks the "Big Four" (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) will eventually become the "Big Five," with the addition of MLS. His response:

I think there are five major sports leagues now.
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