Nearly a quarter of a century before awarding Dave Checketts an MLS expansion franchise, a decision that stunned this country's soccer community, Don Garber, league commissioner, was no stranger to Salt Lake City.

Coincidentally enough, it was a love for another sport that drove the Easterner to Utah all those years ago.

A ski instructor in college in upstate New York, Garber and a "bunch of his ski buddies" have been coming to Alta and Snowbird every year for 25 years. Garber didn't join his friends every year, often because he was at Deer Valley with his family

"I know Utah, but I never knew Utah and understood the diversity and the passion they have for sport," said Garber.

In the nine months since planting a team in Salt Lake City, Garber has discovered that there's so much more to Utah than what's up Parleys and Little Cottonwood canyons.

Garber spent four days in Utah this week checking up on Real Salt Lake's progress with its April 2 season opener less than two weeks away. He met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., twice, with Salt Lake County mayor Peter Corroon, with the corporate sponsors and with RSL's staff. He also held several press conferences — and even had time to join his ski buddies, who just happened to be in town this week.

It's been a very busy week for this country's "soccer ambassador," but he's loved every minute of it.

"This is the best part of the job. I smile when I say this in Utah, but being a commissioner of Major League Soccer is missionary work," said Garber. "This is a role where it's not just managing and administrating the sport, it's selling the sport and getting people to really understand what you're trying to achieve."

With a higher per capita of youth soccer players in Utah than in any other state, Garber had a hunch that selling soccer to the Intermountain West wouldn't be too difficult. With 3,100 season tickets sold already, his hunch is paying off.

"They've been making enormous progress, and, frankly, more progress than I think many people thought," said Garber. "With Dave's leadership and vision of what this team could be, I think we're anticipating great things."

Garber is a man with a plan.

With the league entering its 10th-anniversary season — six under the direction of Garber, who was the marketing director of the NFL before joining the MLS — the league's marketing campaign this year involves the past, present and future of soccer.

While the past was often dreadful, the present is fantastic, according to Garber. In 2004, the league enjoyed its most successful season ever. In the off season, the league signed a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Union, in addition to a 10-year, $100-million deal with Adidas. The league also announced two new stadium projects in Denver and Chicago, bringing the total of soccer-specific stadiums either finished, under construction or ready to begin construction to six.

The future also bodes well for the MLS. With the league expanding from 10 to 12 teams this year, the league is taking another step toward expanding to the optimal size of 18 by adding two more teams in 2007. Toronto, which recently broke ground on a soccer stadium, will likely be awarded a team, as will either Seattle, San Antonio, Cleveland, Philadelphia or Houston.

The fact the league is even in a position to expand speaks volumes of Garber's vision.

"Garber is a phenomenal ambassador, but he's also very much a CEO," said Real Salt Lake general manager Steve Pastorino. "He gets involved. He knows what his teams are doing. He knows what's happening in ticket sales and sponsorship. He has ideas. He helps us network."

The darkest days of the league, according to Pastorino, occurred during the 1999 all-star game in San Diego. The league had scheduled a doubleheader with the East vs. West all-star game to be followed by Chivas of the Mexican League vs. Colo Colo of the Chilean League. A measly crowd attended, but making matters worse, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed that day, and ABC cut away from soccer coverage and bumped the MLS game to ESPN2.

Pastorino admits he and many of his counterparts were ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat at that point.

"I just felt, we are so far off the map of the mainstream, both in U.S. and for any goal of reaching Hispanics in this country," said Pastorino, who was working for the Chicago Fire at the time. "We can't draw 10,000 people 10 miles from the Mexican border to see Chivas play."

A few months later, Don Logan was relieved of his commissioner duties, and that's when Garber took over.

"Don Garber came in shortly thereafter with a breath of fresh air, and we acknowledged that all of the start-up steam that the league had had since 1996 had run out," said Pastorino. "And now we were in a serious business endeavour in competition with all the other leagues."

Pastorino was sending out resumes to a handful of dot-com businesses in Silicon Valley at the time, but Garber's optimism changed all that. Garber quickly came in and convinced the teams around the league that better days were ahead for Major League Soccer.

"Professional sports just isn't about New York City and L.A. Pro soccer isn't just about places that are obvious soccer markets that have strong ethnic fan bases," Garber said. "It's about finding cities that understand the game, have an experience with the game, and certainly Salt Lake does."


E-mail: jedward@desnews.com