Major League Soccer commissioner defends U.S. soccer growth

Don Garber, who has held the highest position in the MLS since 1999, came to speak about recent soccer trends — and scandals — as part of SU's University Lectures series.

Soccer worldwide has endured heated criticism in the past year in regards to FIFA and its recent corruption scandals.

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, faced similar heat in Hendricks Chapel when he came to speak as part of the Syracuse University's University Lectures series.

Photo: Courtesy of SU Photo & Imaging

In a discussion with Rick Burton, professor of sport management at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, Garber handled a myriad of hardball questions Tuesday evening. Burton brought up an essential point right off the bat — the MLS has recently faced opposition in securing corporate sponorships, as companies perceive a lack of governance in the soccer industry.

“FIFA should be accountable to its delegates,” Garber said. In late 2015, the FIFA ethics committee sparked an investigation of massive bribery and kickback corruption against FIFA President Sepp Blatter and more than a dozen other top FIFA executives. The investigation ultimately led to Blatter's suspension. Along with several others involved in the corruption, Blatter is banned from any soccer-related activities for at least the next eight years. Despite what was recently in the news, Garber said he has high hopes for the future of soccer in the United States.

Garber has held his position since 1999, oversees of the highest level of professional soccer in the United States and Canada. Under Garber's supervision, MLS expanded from 10 to 23 teams and added 20 new owners in the past 17 years.

When Burton asked Garber about the future of MLS growth in the United States, Garber declared soccer's presence as a global sport — one he claimed is more popular than any other game in the world.

Countries like Belgium live and breathe soccer from birth, Garber said, and Europeans are fanatic about their version of football. Garber pointed out the difference in soccer culture in the United States — soccer is not integrated into society as heavily as in Europe, although there is potential for it to become a more mainstream sport.

MLS also has begun to incorporate soccer academies in America to breed the next generation of soccer superstars. Soccer development programs designed for kids 14 and under (U14) have generated millions of dollars in investment, he said.

The big issue, Garber said, is that America is not developing the soccer talent fast enough for players to compete on an international scale. The existing programs need to create great players at a higher rate so that it doesn't take generations for the world’s best players to come out of the United States. Garber added he'd like to see the U.S. men's team as a serious contender for the World Cup.

Sierra Shafer, a junior public relations major, said she was impressed with how Garber has worked to turn around soccer's reputation in the United States since 1999.

“(I enjoyed) hearing from someone that took a league that wasn’t popular in the U.S. and grew something that is international," Shafer said. "Understanding how soccer fits into the American market was very insightful.”

Womens soccer, on the other hand, has seen a different kind of growth, Garber said.

“The birth of women’s soccer ran parallel to the success of the women’s national team,” said Garber. In 2015, the U.S. Women's National Team won the World Cup. However, their games do not generate as much revenue as men's games, Garber said.

Bode Adimula, a sophomore pre-law student in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she enjoyed listening to what Garber had to say.

“I think the event didn’t allow for the audience to ask enough questions," Adimula said. "However, I like Garber’s views on how soccer in America has progressed over the years. He is very inspirational, and he made some great points.”

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