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MLS CUP

Commissioner Don Garber on MLS north of the border

By Kurt Larson, Toronto Sun

MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks during a press conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in advance of the MLS Cup championship game between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew. Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks during a press conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in advance of the MLS Cup championship game between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew. Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS - 

This isn’t the National Hockey League, an entity ruled, in many respects, by Canadians.

Major League Soccer and the NHL are merely acquaintances. In millennial terms, the two are hardly Facebook friends. They don’t even share best practices.

Unlike hockey fans, though, MLS supporters in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto often feel ignored. Much of that, of course, can be chalked up to an occasional out-of-control inferiority complex. The Americans are always against us.

So, we asked MLS commissioner Don Garber for a Canadian version of his annual state-of-the-league address.

“We’re not spending as much time as we need to getting up there,” Garber told the Toronto Sun ahead of Sunday’s MLS Cup.

“It’s very important that everyone in Canada knows that. And while they might not think this all the time, we do think of our responsibility to grow the game in Canada like we’ve been able to do in the United States and ensure the Canadian clubs have the same opportunity to be successful as their U.S.-based counterparts. When we look at Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, they’ve got great fan bases, they’ve got terrific facilities, they have a deep connection to their communities that, at times, is bigger and more significant than many of the U.S. teams in our league. I’ve said many times that the real test of what we’re able to do is when the Canadian national team qualifies for a World Cup.

“I think we’re getting closer. We’re developing more players like Orlando’s Cyle Larin, our rookie of the year this season, and having an opportunity for more and more Canadian players to perform at the highest level here and in Canada.”

Of course, there are grassroots issues Canada’s MLS teams can’t solve. Then there is the eternal issue with American MLS rosters.

Canadian players are treated differently. They count as “international” or import players, meaning they’re constantly fighting for roster spots with players from every other country.

The league has maintained that U.S. immigration laws complicate things. But is it possible, at the very least, to give MLS clubs an incentive to sign Canadians?

“It’s possible. I think we should think about it,” Garber said. “I think it would be a great way for us to shout out loud our desire to do everything to have the game grow in Canada.

“But we are very focused on doing everything we can to not have more rules that are outside the salary budget-type programs. At the end of the day, the Canadian player needs to get better. The MLS clubs in Canada need to do their part to ensure that happens.”

They’re further along in that process than a majority of American MLS teams. As Garber put it, all three of Canada’s MLS clubs are still in “investment mode”. They’re not profitable.

“Part of that is because they’re spending so much money on the development side,” he added. “I can assure you that the investment that Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are making is in the top quadrant in Major League Soccer.

“Part of that is because of where the game is in Canada and what kind of resources our owners need to put towards youth development, training programs, facilities and proper academies.”

There are few complaints about the senior teams in each of Canada’s three markets. Despite falling short in the post-season, Vancouver, structurally speaking, appears to be a model franchise. The Whitecaps regularly drew capacity crowds in what was undoubtedly a successful 2015. Following a slow start in Montreal, the addition of Didier Drogba saw the Impact become the talk of the town. Finally, Toronto FC — looking past its disastrous playoff exit — has the best player in the league, and appears to finally have structure under incoming president Bill Manning. The Reds also set attendance records this season. Put it this way: The Reds are no longer a complete joke — something they had been since entering the league in 2007, the end of MLS 1.0.

And the three Canadian MLS clubs now find themselves in a league where the minimum expansion fee is $100 million — 10 times the amount MLSE paid for a franchise less than a decade ago.

“It was a good investment,” Garber said of MLSE’s decision to purchase a franchise for $10 million.

“They got in early. They took a risk,” Garber said. “At that time, we only had 12 teams in the league. They invested a lot of money in the stadium and have now invested exponentially more. I think it speaks to their vision. I can remember those conversations with (MLSE chairman) Larry Tanenbaum and the board at that time. They just really believed in the future of the sport in Canada and the United States and what that could represent as a good community asset.”

Looking to the future, whispers out of Alberta hinted that the Calgary Foothills, a PDL franchise, has preliminary MLS aspirations. Shortly after MLS first expanded into Canada, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made public his attempt to bring MLS to Canada’s capital, leading to Garber once indicating that Ottawa was a legitimate option. There’s also a rich history of soccer in Edmonton, although the NASL side there hasn’t given any indication it hopes to make the jump.

“There has not been any real focus on more expansion in Canada,” Garber told the Sun. “We still have work to do in growing our fan bases for our current Canadian clubs throughout the country and to expand from what has been a very local and regional fan following into something that can be more national. Hopefully, that would be represented with higher television ratings and more revenue for those teams. As you probably know we are focused on finalizing the next four teams.”

Atlanta United FC will join in 2017, then Los Angeles FC in 2018. Minneapolis and, potentially, Miami are expected to follow.

As the league wraps its 20th season Sunday night, it’s intent on carving out a bigger piece of the pie.

Can MLS, with three Canadian teams, catch the Canadian Football League? In the U.S., MLS is hunting down the NHL for notoriety. Attendance is up 43% since Toronto joined the league.

“It surprises me there hasn’t been more attention on how much the fan bases for our league have grown over a relatively short period of time,” Garber said.

Much of that can be attributed to the Canadian teams.

TOUGH TALK ON REF ABUSE

The abuse MLS officials deal with on a regular basis has reached “inappropriate” levels.

And the commissioner Don Garber thinks it’s time to take action.

“Our officials are a lot better than people give them credit for,” Garber told the Toronto Sun. “We track it. That’s not just my opinion. I attended a game with someone at Red Bull Arena. That person spent the entire game complaining about the officiating. Happened to be a Red Bull fan. They didn’t like the outcome. Ultimately, though, (referee Baldomero) Toledo had a very good game. He didn’t make many mistakes. No official is perfect. He controlled the game. I thought it was well done.

“Yet, the social chatter and criticism was massive. I understand why that is. There’s a development gap between the knowledge of our fan base and, in some cases, our broadcasters and the way the game has developed.”

Garber hinted there could be stricter consequences if referee abuse doesn’t subside in 2016.

“There’s a level of vitriol that I think exists with officiating in our league and many other leagues that is unfortunate,” Garber added. “These are guys who believe in the sport and are working full-time in our league. I think they deserve to be respected more than they are. I know that’s a controversial thing to say. That’s not just our fans, it’s the players and coaches, as well. It’s something we’re going to be looking at in the off-season because it’s really unacceptable.

“We need to do the same thing with mass confrontation and sideline behaviour. In order to do that, we all need to commit to changing our behaviour. If you’re not going to change it, then we’re going to force you to.


MLS CUP - SUNDAY, DEC. 6 - TSN/RDS 4 ET - PORTLAND TIMBERS @ COLUMBUS CREW

COLUMBUS -- Sorry, Vancouver. Too bad, Seattle.

The Portland Timbers are eager to become the first "Cascadia" club to win an MLS Cup.

And they're not afraid to let their two biggest rivals know it after dominating the Whitecaps in the Western Conference semis.

"I think it would be meaningful to be the first Cascadia team but winning MLS is meaningful within itself," Timbers bench boss Caleb Porter admitted ahead of Sunday's MLS Cup final.

"That just adds an extra bonus and fuel to the fire for the rivalry for us to be able to say we're the first Cascadia team to win the Western Conference and the MLS Cup trophy."

Ironically, the Timbers, who meet the Columbus Crew at a sold out MAPFRE Stadium Sunday evening, finished last in the 2015 Cascadia Cup standings.

We're guessing the 'Caps would trade their regular season bragging rights for a chance to host Sunday's game.

PLAYERS AT ALL POSITIONS

The Whitecaps had MLS "Best XI" defender Kendall Waston. The Montreal Impact had MLS all-star Laurent Ciman.

Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco won just about everything possible.

Ahead of Sunday's MLS Cup, Porter reminded reporters that his side is built without decorated players.

"You look at the MLS Best XI, we don't have a guy on the Best XI," Porter started. "You look at the MLS All-Star team, we don't have a guy on the all-star team.

"But when you go through every position, we've got a good player at every position … I'm not sure I'd trade a guy at any position."

You can't say that for many teams in this league. Most rosters are littered with overpriced players who are salary-cap killers.

Or, like FC Dallas and Vancouver -- the two sides Portland beat to get to this point -- they don't have enough experience.

"We're a very balanced team," Porter added. "We're a threat to the opponent. We're getting goals from different guys in different ways. We're a solid defensive team."

FULL STRENGTH

Former premier leaguer Liam Ridgewell flanked Porter following Portland's training session here Friday.

The hulking centre-back missed the Timbers' previous playoff game in Dallas with a calf injury.

Although the 31-year-old Ridgewell has said he'll be ready for Sunday's final, many have questioned his availability.  

"They'll both be ready, available," Porter said, referring to star striker Fandendo Adi as well.

TFC TURNING POINT

Maybe Toronto FC played a part in helping the Columbus Crew roll all the way to MLS Cup.

Crew captain Michael Parkhurst and striker Kei Kamara were asked to address where things started to turn in the Crew's favour this season.

"I can't pinpoint a game … or series of games," Kamara started.

His teammate could.

"We had two very good away wins in DC … and 2-0 at Toronto," Parkhurst said. "They were very good wins that the team really benefitted from."

That loss, of course, sunk Toronto. In the end, the Reds were a few points shy of hosting a playoff game.

Toronto never won again after dropping a late-season result to the Eastern Conference champs.  

PARKHURST CURSE

The Crew's top defender is hoping to end an MLS Cup curse stretching back to his time with the New England Revolution.

Robert Kraft's franchise remains 0-for-5 in MLS Cup finals. Parkhurst was a part of three of those losses.

"Now it's a little different," said Parkhurst, adding he has more appreciation for making it this far. "It's a harder path now than it was. There are more games in the playoffs.

"All the experiences just make you value it a little bit more. I like the new (playoff) format. I really do."

Mostly because he's playing this MLS Cup at home.

REMEMBER WHEN

The Timbers have already silenced MAPFRE Stadium once this season, claiming an impressive 2-1 win in Columbus back in September.

Adi had a pair of goals on both sides of halftime to cancel Kamara's equalizer before the break.

"It plays a factor in our minds," Crew coach Greg Berhalter said of hosing the Timbers for a second time this season.

"We've looked at their strengths. We've looked at what we could have done better. But they're two different teams. If you see the run they've been on since then the've done a fantastic job. We know they're a good team."

The Timbers have lost just onc