VANCOUVER — After two decades at the helm of Major League Soccer, commissioner Don Garber knows there’s one subject everyone who loves the sport loves to complain about — officiating.
He’s never had a conversation with a fan, coach, general manager, owner or player that didn’t turn to reffing at some point.
"I think it’s the imperfect nature of officiating in our sport and the fact that it does require and involve judgment. And that’s what makes the game what it is today and I don’t think that’s going to change," Garber told The Canadian Press in a wide-ranging interview.
Recently, however, MLS — and soccer leagues across the globe — have introduced technology designed to help officials, including the video-assisted referee system.
While some players and coaches have expressed concerns with how the system is used, Garber said VAR is correcting calls in "many, many instances."
"I don’t accept in any way that there is any team that is prejudiced or that any referee has an axe to grind. Sometimes referees have good games, sometimes they have bad games, but there’s never anything more than that," he said. "It’s an imperfect process."
In 20 years as MLS commissioner, Garber’s heard complaints on a variety of other issues, too.
He knows that players get frustrated when they have to chose between playing for their national team or their MLS club.
He knows that the league’s schedule is difficult, especially this season with a re-jigged playoff schedule compressing the regular season and forcing teams to compete on separate coasts within the same week.
He knows that some clubs have to travel more than others and that their trips sometimes include cancelled flights that wreak havoc on a team’s ability to train or recover.
There’s no perfect answer for fixing the league’s schedule, Garber said, but a number of options are evaluated at the end of every season, including changes to conference structure or increasing how many charter flights each club can use each season.
This year, players have become increasingly vocal about their concerns. Some have taken to Twitter to document hours spent in airports after a cancelled flight. Others have spoken out about officiating or contracts in the media. The athletes have also used their platform to speak out on various political or social issues, including gun violence.
Many of the players’ concerns are expected to come up in talks about a new collective bargaining agreement. The current agreement expires at the end of January 2020.
The MLS has never had a strike or lockout, and Garber remains optimistic about a new deal.
"CBA negotiations are always difficult," he said. "I’ve got faith in our ownership, I’ve got faith in the (MLS Players Association). We’ll go get very serious about this very quickly and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an agreement with our players."
The challenges continue to grow as MLS expands.
When play began back in 1996, the league included just 10 teams. That number has ballooned to 24 this season, and will continue to grow with Miami, Austin, Nashville and St. Louis all set to add clubs by 2022.
Garber said there’s no set number of teams he’d like to see in MLS, but there haven’t been any talks about creating a relegation system.
The commissioner sees the league as being pretty balanced, competition wise, with 10 different clubs winning the MLS Cup over the past 12 years. And that’s the way he wants it to stay.
"Like all leagues, you want to give fans at the beginning of the year the hope and dream that their team can win a championship and be very competitive," he said. "And we’re very focused on trying to confirm that league wide."
Garber also wants to ensure that MLS clubs continue becoming more "deeply ingrained" in communities across the U.S. and Canada.
Over his 20 years as commissioner, he’s watched soccer grow in popularity and, with North America hosting the World Cup in 2026, that growth is expected to continue.
In the coming years, MLS is going to develop more homegrown talent and more players are going to spend "the most important years of their careers" in the league, Garber said.
He also expects more state-of-the-art soccer facilities will be built and the league’s reputation to continue flourishing in the global soccer community.
"It almost seems like your head can spin with the amount of activity that’s gone on this year. But I still think our best years are ahead as we onboard these new teams and continue to open up facilities," Garber said.
"The future, I think, is even brighter than some of the great successes we’ve had over the last couple of years."