'No doubt in my mind' MLS can support more than 28 teams - Don Garber

ATLANTA -- MLS commissioner Don Garber used his annual State of the League address to raise the possibility that the league could continue to expand, saying that "there is no doubt in my mind that we can support having more than 28 teams."

Previously stated plans were to stop and consolidate at 28, but most of the open expansion slots are occupied. Twenty-three teams currently call MLS home, with FC Cincinnati to make it an even 24 next season, Inter Miami and Nashville to follow in 2020 and Austin FC also set to join.

"We will grant the 28th team and make that decision sometime in the next 12 months," Garber said. "And then we're going to have to decide whether we want to go forward, beyond 28 teams. That is a discussion that is taking place. We will begin to introduce the subject at our board meeting starting next week."

Garber claimed regular interest from at least "half a dozen" additional cities wanting to join the league in the future.

"This is a big country," Garber said. "I can remember when we were first looking at expansion. We came in at 12, went down to 10 and then went up to 14 in 2005. I don't know at that time that we ever thought we'd be the size we are now. So much has gone on over the last decade in this sport.

"Every time we evaluate how large we want the league be, it really is in the context of the country and of the sport."

Garber also said that the playoff format, which currently features 12 participants and two-leg series in both the conference semis and finals, could change as early as 2019. The league's board of governors is set to meet next week.

"There's been lots of talk of changing the playoff format," Garber said. "We've been looking hard at it, and we'll be talking to our board about it next week. My guess is that we're probably going to end up with something that's a little bit different, but we need to go through our ownership group before we formally announce that.

"The idea here is to continually make the regular season more and more important, so that winning in March is as important as winning in September or October. Our playoff format that we're evaluating I think would really place great emphasis on the regular season."

Garber also said that MLS "needs to be more of a selling league" in order to continue its financial growth.

He added that 2018 was the league's best "from both a sporting and business perspective" given that LAFC came on board while Atlanta became the first MLS team to have its single-season attendance break 1 million.

But this year also saw the MLS-record transfer of the Vancouver Whitecaps' Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for what could be $22 million, as well as multimillion dollar sales of the Columbus Crew's Zack Steffen to Manchester City and the New York Red Bulls' Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig. Garber says that MLS owners need to be more open to those kinds of transactions.

"We need to become more of a selling league," he said. "As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I've always believed that you needed to have players who resonated in their market, to be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fences when they seem them train. We all need to get used to fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold."

Garber acknowledged that for MLS it's a balancing act between retaining players that fans identify with while also being financially sustainable.

"We have been buying [players] for so long, and as we've gone through the analysis, it's hard to justify that investment and the investment we make in player development," he said. "We've got to have something that turns this model around or else it's going to be unsustainable. So when I see Alphonso Davies get sold for what could be $22 million, that's a positive thing for the league. But we need to have balance. Now [Vancouver Whitecaps owner] Greg Kerfoot needs to use that money to bring somebody in that's going to be as exciting as Alphonso Davies. That's what happens around the world. That's what our teams are going to need to do."

A complicating factor is that U.S-based teams do not participate in FIFA's system of training compensation and solidarity payments. The impact of this is that when an MLS academy product signs his first professional contract with an overseas club, the MLS club gets nothing in return, thus losing out on its investment in the player. One example is when FC Dallas product Weston McKennie signed with German club Schalke two years ago. Garber said that's another aspect of MLS' participation in the global market that needs to change.

"We have to find a way that if that's going to happen, how do we at least get compensated for it?" said Garber about losing academy players for nothing. "I don't know how we can justify making the kind of investments [in academies] that we've been making. There are lots and lots of restrictions against that, there are all sorts of things going on."

He later added, "I will say that our view about [training compensation and solidarity payments] is very different than it was two, three, four or five years ago. I think the product that we're developing has become some of our most important assets. We need to start figuring out ways that we're either protecting or we're finding ways to get compensated if we can't sign them."