Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber responded to FIFA president Sepp Blatter's recent criticism of the league by inviting Blatter to attend an MLS match.
An MLS official said that Blatter's attendance at an MLS game would be a first, the New York Times reported this week.
"If he were to come to a game -- whether it be in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, L.A., Philadelphia, New York or any of our MLS markets -- I think he would be very pleasantly surprised to see the passion that exists in our fan base and the high level of soccer IQ that exists in our fan base."” -- MLS commissioner Don Garber
"If he were to come to a game -- whether it be in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, LA, Philadelphia, New York or any of our MLS markets -- I think he would be very pleasantly surprised to see the passion that exists in our fan base and the high level of soccer IQ that exists in our fan base," Garber told mlssoccer.com.
Last week in an interview with Al Jazeera TV, Blatter blasted MLS, saying it has yet to catch on as a legitimate professional league in the United States.
"We still have a lot of work to do -- we understand and accept that. But arguably there's probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years," Garber told the New York Times. "I know that the president believes in American soccer and believes in the league. Sometimes I think these things happen when you're not here for a while. When you're not here or travel much to the U.S., it's hard to fully understand what the sports market is like here. When you're not living and breathing the North American sport market, it is easy to believe MLS is being lost in some of the noise."
The league has set attendance records in the past six years, as the average has increased from 15,504 in 2006 to 17,872 in 2011 and a record 18,807 in 2012.
"(Blatter) would be impressed by the quality of play and the quality of the stadiums, and the knowledge and commitment of our local media and national press," Garber told mlssoccer.com. "We here all should feel good about what has happened in America."
Blatter said league officials have had ample time to get the world's most popular sport to take hold in the U.S., but MLS has failed to generate much interest among mainstream American sports fans.
"It is a question of time, I thought -- we had the World Cup in 1994," Blatter told Al Jazeera TV. "But it is now 18 years in so it should have been done now. But they are still struggling."
Blatter said that soccer remains the U.S.'s most popular youth participation sport, outranking both football and baseball, but said that the professional league fever that rages around much of the world has never quite stuck in the U.S.
"There is no very strong professional league (in the U.S.)," Blatter said. "They have just the MLS but they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society."
Garber said this week it is still still too early to compare the MLS to other countries' leagues.
"In no way are we struggling, but we are less than 20 years old; we haven't gone through a full generational term," Garber told the Washington Post. "MLS, in a short period of time, has made great progress. But we have not been around for 100 years like (some) other (U.S.) leagues and certainly like the European soccer leagues, and as such, our development is appropriate to where we are from an age perspective."
Blatter has previously taken pokes at the MLS, among them the beef that it will struggle to prod star players to head to the U.S. unless it matches its season to those in Europe.
Soccer's governing body demanded that the U.S. create a national league as one of its conditions for awarding the country the right to host the 1994 World Cup. The MLS began in 1996 and Blatter said organizers had long been aware of the problems regarding the clash in calendars. MLS routinely schedules matches on international fixture dates.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.