MLS Commissioner Don Garber says attendance on rise, expansion proceeding at steady pace



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DENVER — Kaka and David Villa are raising the profile of Major League Soccer. Clint Dempsey and the U.S. national teams have done their part, too.

Buoyed by international soccer icons and capitalizing on recent World Cup success by the American men's and women's national teams, the league is drawing record numbers so far this season, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.

MLS averages 21,109 spectators a game, a figure bolstered by the additions of Orlando City (Kaka's squad) and New York City FC (Villa's team). The 20-team league also has new television deals that allow their stars to be seen all over the globe.

Still, MLS is losing money — Garber declined to give an exact figure — as teams write big checks for top players and fund player development through academy programs to discover the next Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan or Dempsey.

"We're still in investment mode," said Garber, whose MLS All-Stars beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on Wednesday. "But there's a lot of momentum for the sport of soccer in the U.S. and Canada and that is empowering."

Next on the docket? Expansion. Atlanta is scheduled to join MLS in 2017 and a second team in Los Angeles the following season. Down the road, Miami and Minnesota are expected to come on board as well.

Garber threw his support behind a plan presented by retired soccer icon David Beckham to officials in Miami. Beckham and his partners are looking at the former Orange Bowl site, with the field financed privately and built on city-owned land at an estimated cost of around $200 million.

"We believe Miami will be a great MLS market and we look forward to bringing the whole project across the finish line," Garber said.

As for Minnesota, that's proving a little more challenging. With the passing of an early July deadline for a stadium plan in Minneapolis, the league is turning its attention toward St. Paul.

"We've now become intrigued by a possibility of having a stadium be in St. Paul," Garber said. "Similar with Miami, though, without a stadium, you can't go forward anywhere. But we remain hopeful."

Other potential markets include Sacramento, St. Louis or San Diego, he said.

"That speaks to this overall growth period that we're going through," Garber said. "You have to do expansion right. There's no rush. If we have to wait any period of time to get it right, we're willing to do that."

Garber is encouraged by the number of foreign players headlining MLS rosters — and not just as a last resort.

Sebastian Giovinco, the 28-year-old former Juventus standout, has 13 goals and 10 assists for Toronto FC this season.

Then there's Kaka and Villa, a pair of 33-year-old highly decorated players who are demonstrating they still have flashy moves. Kaka scored on a penalty kick in the MLS All-Star game and set up Villa's goal.

"We're still going through these unique phases that are determining what this league will look like," Garber said. "We don't know what MLS will look like two years from now.

"But if a fan lives in a market with an MLS team, we hope they'll be deeply connected with our local club. Paint their face and wave a flag, put on a club jersey and celebrate this game. Think of this league as a league of their own."

Other topics Garber touched on:

ALL-STAR FORMAT: Garber is open to looking at a possible return to the East-West format for the All-Star game. However, the contest featuring an international opponent has been a big hit. "It provides us the platform to stand toe-to-toe against all the big clubs and say, 'Hey, we can get in the ring with you guys,'" Garber said. "It creates a real profile."

NO SIMMERING BEEF: Garber said he's on good terms with U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The pair had a public spat last year, when Garber criticized Klinsmann for not taking Donovan to the World Cup and also for saying Dempsey and Bradley damaged their careers by returning to MLS from European clubs. "I'm a big supporter of Jurgen. I have no doubt his intentions are good," Garber said.

PRIME TIME: Through new TV deals, MLS games can be watched in Europe, South American, Asia and Africa. "When you have David Villa, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard and Kaka in your league, the rest of the world is going to pay attention," Garber said.

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