What will MLS look like when the 2026 World Cup kicks off?

FC Yahoo

NEW YORK – In the euphoric moments after Canada, Mexico and the United States won the right to host the 2026 World Cup following a vote by FIFA member nations last month in Moscow, MLS commissioner Don Garber was asked by a reporter what the decision would mean for the future of the league.

“There’s no doubt that this is going to be rocket fuel that is going to help give us the momentum we’ve been looking for,” Garber said.

Hosting the World Cup will be good for soccer in North America and for MLS, the top professional league in the U.S. and Canada. But what will the impact be in practical terms? How different could MLS look in eight years? And will getting the tournament significantly accelerate the domestic league’s growth, as Garber’s words seemed to suggest?

To help answer those questions, Yahoo Sports asked Garber to elaborate on his “rocket fuel” comment during a recent interview at the league’s Manhattan headquarters. His responses were candid and insightful.

“Actually,” Garber said early on, “I was thinking a lot about what would happen if we didn’t win.”

It’s not that Garber is a pessimist. He felt almost as good about the bid’s chances as he was sure that victory would  “position MLS and the sport overall to be stronger, more popular, better funded, have more fans, more facilities, and overall just more value for our constituents.”

But he was also in attendance at another FIFA congress in 2010, and remembered too well when a seemingly air tight bid to host the 2022 tournament in the U.S. was defeated by tiny Qatar. So, in the lead up to this June’s decision, he often reminded himself how the league continued to thrive despite that public gut-punch eight years ago.

The lesson? Stick to the plan no matter the outcome.

“Not getting the World Cup in 2010 didn’t slow MLS down, and had we lost this bid, that wouldn’t have slowed us down, either,” Garber said.  “It wouldn’t have derailed us whatsoever from our strategy of trying to be one of the top leagues in the world.”

Similarly, winning  the bid won’t suddenly change everything. Competing on even terms with the English Premier League, German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga has long been MLS’s stated goal. And it has closed the gap with those leagues, at least off the field.

Atlanta United’s average crowd of 48,000-plus would put it in the top half in any of those globally revered circuits. The overall average, which has risen 33 percent since 2010, now ranks eighth worldwide. But the reality is that MLS still lags well behind those leagues when it comes to quality of play.

As much as MLS is improving its game every year, its teams won’t be able to compete with their elite European counterparts as long as they spend a fraction of the money on talent. You generally get what you pay for when it comes to the planet’s most cutthroat sport. While continued on-field investment has allowed MLS teams to vie financially with clubs in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, the big boys remain well beyond reach for now.  

(Getty)
(Getty)

That’s not to say MLS isn’t willing to spend. Billions have been poured into infrastructure in over the last five years alone. With the 2026 World Cup locked in, increased revenue from networks and sponsors is sure to follow. So if the goal is to become a destination league by the time the World Cup arrives on these shores for the first time since 1994, does Garber see MLS owners boosting payrolls at least at a quicker rate than they otherwise would have?

“No, I don’t,” he said. “Our plan is about slow, steady growth and it’s been working. We’ve established a solid foundation for our league, which has required billions of dollars in investment.  

“All of our energy over the next decade is going to be focused on having a product and a level of play that will allow us to be competitive with the top leagues. That’s going to require more investment,” Garber continued. “But it can’t just be in salaries. Development, training, technology — all of those things are part of ensuring that the level of play continues to improve.”

Besides Atlanta, an expansion team last year, MLS boasts wildly popular clubs in cities like Kansas City, Orlando, Portland, Seattle and Toronto. Municipalities from coast to coast are lining up to pay the league’s $150 million expansion fee; Cincinnati, Nashville and Miami will bring MLS to 26 teams over the next few years, with two more to follow before 2026. Television ratings are improving, and gross TV viewership is up 75 percent since 2010. If ever there were a time to loosen the purse strings, you’d think it would be now.

Yet Garber’s cautious approach is understandable. MLS nearly folded two years after he took the job, at the behest of the late Lamar Hunt, in 1999. A pair of teams were shuttered instead, with the remaining 10 bankrolled by Hunt and fellow billionaires Philip Anschutz and Robert Kraft.

Even today, following a decade of expansion that has already cemented Garber’s legacy as one of the most influential commissioners in American sports history, several teams continue to struggle. The Columbus Crew – one of MLS’s original clubs – appears headed to Austin, Texas next year in what would be just the second franchise relocation in 23 seasons.

FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids drew fewer fans than the Crew did last year. As easy as it is to trumpet MLS’s success stories; Garber’s view seems to be that the league is only as strong as its weakest club.

“We want all of our teams to be as relevant as Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City,” he said. “We need passionate and committed fan bases in all of our markets that can be connected to become a national fan base, and then ultimately an international fan base, because that’s what the top leagues have.

“But we want to do it with economic rationality,” he added. “We want to ensure that we have a league that is economically viable. That’s sometimes lost on people.”

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If MLS isn’t going to drastically alter its business model in the short term to attract the best players in the world, it can try to create its own stars and sell them for a profit. The league used to make it difficult for homegrown players to leave, but that’s changing. MLS has put more emphasis on developing talent over the last decade, with clubs establishing no-cost academies and partnering with or funding teams in the lower division USL, where promising 15-to-22-year-olds can hone their skills before graduating to MLS.

Prized academy products such as Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies are already difference makers with the New York Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps respectively, and both are being tracked by bigger teams in better leagues. The Montreal Impact sent another teenager, Ballou Tabla, to mighty Barcelona last winter, and U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie helped Schalke to a runner-up finish in the Bundesliga a little more than a year after leaving FC Dallas’ youth ranks.

“One of the things that Jurgen Klinsmann said that today I agree with: The best way to develop players is to have the most competitive environment,” Garber said, invoking the former U.S. coach who so infuriated him in 2014 by saying that the top Americans should remain overseas rather than return to MLS. “Many young players are leaving the United States from our academy programs because they think it’s more competitive over there. We need to create the most competitive environment possible to ensure that every player earns his spot in the first team.”

Some have tied the failure of the U.S. to qualify for the 2018 World Cup to the declining percentage of national team-eligible players in MLS lineups. But while the league has a vested interest in the U.S. and Canada fielding competitive squads in 2026, it doesn’t sound like quotas for domestic players, which Mexico’s Liga MX introduced two years ago, are on the horizon either.

“I don’t know that there’s enough evidence that that is the right way to ensure the development of the domestic player,” Garber said. “We want to be a contributor to the success of the national team. Most of our coaches are American, many of them played in our league and, like me, they want the national team to do well. How you get there is a process where the devil is in the details.”

As for who will be running MLS when the 2026 World Cup arrives, that’s another unknown. Garber is expected to finalize a contract extension this summer, but that deal won’t span eight years. Whether he’s the commissioner then or not, “The 2026 World Cup could create the next generation of people who are going to take this sport forward, and that should also include someone to take the league forward,” Garber said. “At some point, they’re going to need somebody else other than me.”

Until then, he’ll focuses on the day-to-day work of building MLS, with 2026 – which coincides with the league’s 30th birthday – as the obvious “North Star.”

“if managed properly, that World Cup could establish an entire new ecosystem for the sport,” Garber said. “What the specifics of that are, I can’t outline today. But I can assure you that MLS and its teams will be thinking about how we can rally around this incredible moment. It’s far more impactful than just a month-long tournament. This is something that has the potential to drive a generation if not multi-generations of opportunities for everyone that’s involved in soccer in North America.”

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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