Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber got a true taste of the player’s experience on Thursday, when his flight into Vancouver was delayed until the middle of the night, throwing off his personal and professional schedule for the following day.
His league’s players — especially the well-travelled Vancouver Whitecaps — are used to the delays that plague the commercial carriers, as league rules dictate a cap on charter flights. But in a league that covers more kilometres of travel than any of its international peers, it’s an issue that has simmered for years.
“We’ve been very mindful of managing our league and our expenses, in accordance with our revenues,” Garber said Friday at UBC, where he was touring the Whitecaps’ training facility.
“But I think the time is coming where we do need to start having to look at charters, specifically for clubs that are geographically further away from their regular competitors. But it needs to happen in the right way.
“I worry more about thinking we’ve cracked the code for this sport than the day-to-day challenges. In time, I think you’ll see more charters, but I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where a guy is going to be buying big planes and travelling the way the other leagues do. At least not in my tenure.”
MLS teams can fly charter four times a year, though the league can authorize more in special circumstances, or if the cost for flying commercial exceeds that of a charter.
The Whitecaps will have covered 82,363 kilometres by plane this year in their 17 away matches, the lengthy trips inevitably drawing the ire of coach Carl Robinson, though the team does rely on sports science techniques — staying on West Coast time or flying into high-elevation games less than 24 hours before kickoff — in an attempt to mitigate the most deleterious effects.
It’s an issue that won’t go away, not with the league continuing its expansion, with Cincinnati, Nashville and Miami set to join the league in the next few years — and another possible two franchises after that.
But, along with the impending exodus of the Crew from Columbus to Austin — a situation that continues to be infuriating for Ohio and embarrassing for the league — and an officiating corps that continues to confuse and confound, there aren’t many issues generating headlines of urgency.
MLS started in 1996 with 10 teams, and after tumultuous period that saw both expansion and contraction as franchises flamed out, still sat at 10 teams eight years later.
But since then expansion has been steady, and is now sprinting toward Garber’s stated goal of 28 teams, the newcomers like Atlanta and LAFC proving high-calibre additions and setting the bar for those that follow.
FC Cincinnati, which will make the move to MLS next year — under the guidance of former Whitecaps coaching alum Alan Koch and Pa-Modou Kah — already averages some 20,000 fans as a USL squad.
“It’s managing growth, and it’s something that’s fun to say,” Garber said of what he termed the league’s biggest current issue, as the head office is working on an eight-year plan in the lead-up to the jointly-hosted 2026 World Cup.
“It used to be figuring out how we could be viable. Now, with all the momentum we have, how do we ensure we’re making the right decisions.”
A relatively bottomless player pool globally means the MLS won’t dilute its product by adding more teams, but Garber did concede that international talent does make domestic development tougher.
“Particularly here in Canada, where you have a sophisticated soccer audience, high quality of product on the field matters first,” he said.
“But we have an obligation to our (two) countries, to develop players for our national teams. We have to figure out how those two marry with each other, and how we’re satisfying both of our objectives.”
There still is no agreement between the MLS and fledgling Canadian Premier League to work co-operatively, but it will provide another path for player development. Garber made it clear they wouldn’t be competing for the same players.
“They’re absolutely not a rival. I don’t think they’re positioning themselves in terms of the level of that league, as a rival,” he said. “The CPL is going to be good for Canadian soccer, and at the level that they’re at, it’s not something that concerns me at all. I think the future is bright for soccer in Canada, and more professional teams is good for the game.”
Seattle Sounders at Vancouver Whitecaps
7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium, TSN2, TSN 1040 AM
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