MLS Commisioner Don Garber: Money to revamp Portland stadium 'went a long way'
By any measure, the Portland Timbers' home opener at Jeld-Wen Field Thursday night was a wild success. The renovated stadium sparkled, the stands were packed with an announced sellout crowd of 18,627 and the Timbers got the first MLS win in franchise history, defeating the Chicago Fire 4-2.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber was on hand to witness the event that had been more than a decade in the making.
'Remarkable,' he said. 'Absolutely an historic night for our league, for the sport overall in North America and certainly for the city of Portland and the Timbers.'
Though the Timbers looked like a top-flight MLS side Thursday, the team still has a long road to travel this season, starting with Sunday's 3 p.m. home match against FC Dallas.
Should the Timbers ever contend for an MLS Cup, though, Garber said he believes Portland is a big-enough market to create national excitement.
'No doubt,' he said. 'I knew about the Trail Blazers reaching the playoffs when I was sitting in the Newark Airport waiting for my flight. Pro sports teams that are successful both on and off the field resonate that success throughout the country.
'This is a market that matters. People pay attention to what goes on in the Pacific Northwest. I don't think the size of the market in any way holds back what the Timbers can do and what it means to Major League Soccer.'
One of the things that has Garber very excited about Portland is the Timbers' stadium.
'Frankly, this stadium here is terrific,' he said. 'I spent a lot of time lobbying to get the public support, the financial package for the renovation. And this money went a long way. This is a great building, man. It's tight. The renovation is very high quality, and this city should be proud of it. They did a lot of work to bring it to this point.'
Garber said he did not expect the early success Portland has experienced in marketing the Timbers.
'This surprises us,' he said. 'I didn't expect we'd have what we have here in Portland and (other MLS expansion club) Vancouver. It's hard to predict when we sat down with (Timbers owner) Merritt Paulson and worked with him on his pro formula that that plan would show a sellout for the entire year. That would almost be irresponsible to project that this is where we'd be. And we didn't think that he would be where he is from a sponsorship perspective.'
For Garber, the business success and fan support of the Timbers could serve as a catalyst to help other clubs that play in less soccer-friendly markets.
'When we're able to deliver that success, it is in many ways the engine that's driving the momentum throughout the league,' Garber said. 'We're seeing many places like Dallas that struggled last year now have a sellout in their opening game. There's so many positive things going on around the league.'
As the young and, some would say fragile, league continues to gain popularity, part of that growth may come from the league and its clubs taking special care with the message they deliver to the public.
'It's one of the great values that our league has,' Garber said. 'Our players are part of this process to build the league, and they understand the role. It's the thing that I'm the proudest of. The stadiums are great, the new teams are great, the owners are working hard, but our players believe that it's their job to help grow the sport. That's something that I hope we'll have forever. I'm not sure we will, but I hope we do.'
Like other leagues, MLS levies fines against players and coaches who publicly criticize officials. While Garber said he understands that losing three points because of an official's call can be infuriating, he also believes that the critical comments can hurt the league.
'This is our league, and this is their league as well,' Garber said. 'Nobody wins if we try to bring disrepute, if you will, to our overall business. As emotionally challenging as that self- control is, it's in everybody's best interest to keep their feelings (about officials) to themselves.'
While the league does have a hand in the message MLS clubs deliver, Garber said that in many ways sides have taken it upon themselves to present a positive image.
'It's whole-istic,' Garber said. 'We can tell the story, but everybody needs to believe in that story. No, we're not dictating it. You can't force somebody to believe. They believe that in their hearts. And they're expressing that belief in so many great ways, whether it's community programs or charitable programs or thanking the fans or going out and really trying to get three points for their club.
"It can't come from the league. It can't come from a guy in a suit. It's got to come from their heart.'
Many people will point out that soccer is still not up to par with the other major sports in the United States. For instance, how many Timbers players could a person living in Minnesota name?
But for MLS, the kind of success the Timbers have experienced so far could be looked at as small stepping stones toward American soccer gaining more prominence.
'We (haven't) cracked any special code (with Portland's success),' Garber said. 'Soccer is still a sport that's growing in this country and has a long way to go before we achieve our goals. But we feel pretty good about where we are. Certainly feeling great tonight (Thursday)."