Don Garber's Twitter handle is @thesoccerdon, a joke on his first name. Not a joke: His mark on MLS. What the godfather has done with that league could be considered a major boss move.
In Garber's first full season as MLS commissioner in 2000, the league had 12 teams and an average attendance of 13,756. In 2015, it had 20 teams and an average of 21,574.
"Last year was a great year for our league, our 20th season, which most people didn't think would ever come," Garber said with a smirk Wednesday at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in New York, in front of a mixed North American and European crowd.
The 2016 MLS season kicks off this weekend, but the success of his league is only one reason for Garber's swagger. Now, it is not just MLS that needs him.
The world needs Don Garber.
Last week, Garber traveled to Zurich as one of four representatives from the U.S. Soccer board to the 2016 FIFA Extraordinary Congress. In a room clouded by years of corruption, all the U.S. sat pretty. After all, it was the FBI that steamrolled the Sepp Blatter regime, and it is the U.S. that has money, resources and a clean sheet when it comes to international soccer.
"It was a moment of truth for our sport, not just for our folks here in the United States, but globally," Garber said of the Congress. "We needed to really reconsider how this sport was going to manage itself, how it was going to be governed and how all of us who engage in it would be able to interact with in the future.
"The focus was on transparency, the focus was on inclusion, which is a very positive development for our sport. By edict, there will be more diversity on the FIFA council, the elimination of the executive committee, more women involved in the sport overall, particularly here in the United States, where the women's game is so important in so many different ways."
Last May, the U.S. Federation stood behind Prince Ali bin Hussein in his bid for FIFA president, but Sepp Blatter won re-election. Blatter's resignation led to another election last week.
The United States had time to open its mind up to other candidates. Prince Ali returned to the ballot, but the U.S. jumped on the campaign of UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino. The night before the Congress, U.S. representatives, led by federation president Sunil Gulati met to finalize their strategy, which included getting other CONCACAF members to vote for Infantino rather than Ali.
"Sunil did an unbelievable job," Garber said. "He worked the room. It was a great moment for the United States to step up and show more leadership in the world of global football. Our league is still only 20 years old and we're becoming more and more influential. Our federation's been around for 100 years. We've had a president that's been in place for a decade, and to see him working the room and having the influence and being able to deliver for Gianni is positive for our country."
With soccer still trailing the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL in popularity, American fans might not realize the increasing influence of the U.S. Federation and MLS globally. The 2026 World Cup is still up for grabs. Garber points out Europe, despite Russia's hosting of the 2018 World Cup, is not officially ruled out of the 2026 running. But after two straight World Cups east of the Atlantic, the U.S. will be a frontrunner.
"We thought we would be a great host for the world of soccer in 2022," Garber said of the Qatar's narrow win over the U.S. "That obviously didn't happen. We are a country, that represents, along with China, the future of the sport for everyone. And we'll see it with Copa America. We think we'd be a great host. We'd provide great value for all the members. We'd be able to reenergize a lot of the commercial activity, which FIFA needs to really get back on track with because having sat for the presentation, they lost a lot of their reserves. Financially, they have some challenges, and that's understandable. A World Cup here would provide explosive commercial value for everybody, for all the members."
The U.S. is building its infrastructure in the Americas. Jack Warner, Jeffrey Webb and a series of other CONCACAF individuals were indicted in the FIFA corruption scandal. At Leaders, Garber took a step back to remind the crowd CONCACAF went through its own "comprehensive reform process" one day prior to the FIFA council "that will allow that confederation to get back on its feet, have more transparency, have more accountability, have background checks, have more diversity on their board, etc."
More corruption led this year's Copa América, a CONMEBOL event hosted in South America since its origin in 1916, to the United States.
"We were asked to come in and represent Copa America when the folks in Argentina and Brazil were found to have gotten the rights to Copa America in an improper way," Garber said politely. "We all at U.S. Soccer took a step back to decide if we even wanted it here. We said if we're going to have it here, we've got to manage it properly, having some sell of international television rights and do sponsorship in a way everyone knows we can, with transparency and big govern[ance]."
This June's Copa América Centenario will feature 16 teams -- a half World Cup. The U.S. will use ten soccer-ready venues, coast-to-coast. The U.S. is advertising itself as a potential World Cup location with little initial investment needed, high payout due to commercial resources and a lack of corruption. Copa América Centenario will be a 2026 dress rehearsal (or 2022 if the Qatar plan goes down the drain).
Garber has sat on the board of U.S. Soccer since he took the reins of MLS in 1999. He explains a strong MLS means a strong U.S. Federation and vice versa. What he implies is a strong MLS increases the U.S. Federation's clout, which in turn, increases American influence on FIFA.
If Gulati is the face of U.S. Soccer around the world, Garber is the brain.
"[About] 20 years is the generation kids spend with their families," Garber said, as MLS celebrates its 20th birthday. "It's a time when we look back on, there are very few kids who have grown up without Major League Soccer. That wasn't the case just four or five years ago. Now, we can work with those folks, who are growing up with our league, growing up with our players, growing up in a community that now has an MLS team and move forward."
This Sunday, all 20 MLS teams will kick off a full slate of action from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET. "If you want to binge watch Major League Soccer, you can do that," Garber said.
Looking at the broader picture, Garber is giddy about another key 2016 MLS TV event. "We'll have five games on 'big' Fox," he said.
The league's ESPN schedule remains at 34 games, with 29 on ESPN and five on ESPN2. The breakdown last season was eight on ESPN and 28 on ESPN2.
Better sales are an obvious result of a better product, and MLS has gained momentum in the post-David Beckham Era. Former European stars Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, Sebastian Giovinco and Giovani dos Santos all enter their second MLS seasons. Americans Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley have all made their way back to MLS.
But the player victory Garber is taking the most pride in: Jordan Morris. The 21-year-old American had a standing offer from SV Werder Bremen of the Bundesliga. Instead, he chose MLS.
"We have lots of big international stars, but the vast core of our rosters are American players and many of them are young players like Jordan Morris," Garber says. "[He's a] young, great American kid who grew up in Seattle and went to school at Stanford, won a college cup (2015 NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Tournament) and was signed by the Seattle Sounders, basically saying MLS will be his league of choice and the Sounders will be his club of choice. That's a really important statement for us. We need more Jordan Morrises. And we've got to do our role to develop them."
Is Don Garber's smile a little bit smug? Maybe. But who can blame him? The U.S. has built its soccer federation up for the past two decades. Meanwhile, global soccer powers have hit a rut. The old FIFA regime was toppled, and adding to the mess is the fall of non-American CONCACAF leaders and the power center of CONMEBOL.
The U.S. has a path to the top of the FIFA world. Of course, that base starts domestically, where Don Garber holds the keys to MLS.
Franchises in Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Miami are all set to join MLS within the next three seasons. At Leaders, Garber said:
"Expansion is still a priority to us. We have 20 teams today. By 2018, we'll have 24. We announced at our MLS Cup that we're thinking about growing to 28 teams. It's a huge continent. We've got so many people that want to be connected to a local club."
According to Garber, Atlanta United FC, which will open its doors in 2017, has already sold roughly 30,000 season tickets.
Garber reiterated his opinion that he is open for instant replay in MLS if a legitimate in-game process is developed.
"I think if you're a sports fan here in the U.S., or in Canada, you're watching tennis, you're watching American football, you're watching the NBA or the NHL, and technology helps make the game better," he says. "I believe that our sport, and this isn't just coming from an American, is looking at how technology can make the game better.
"I'm a supporter of using replay. How we do that and be able to do that in ways that don't affect the game and respect the rules of the game and not have stoppages that would change the dynamic that we love so much, all needs to be worked out. We'll raise our hands. We're happy to be leaders in this, and if anybody wants to test instant replay in our league and pay for it, we're all in."
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.