Major League Soccer is giving itself a date and setting a goal — it wants to be considered among the world's premier soccer leagues by 2022.
MLS commissioner Don Garber believes it's obtainable, even if it's ambitious.
"I think the plan has been in place for some time, now we have given ourselves a very targeted goal and it's a bold one," Garber said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "It's not going to be easy to achieve it but it's one we're very confident if we stay focused and things continue to align for us as they have the last couple of years."
Garber announced Wednesday an outline for what he believes it will take for MLS to be recognized among the planet's elite soccer leagues, one that calls for major capital investment in player development, including youth programs, training for coaches and infrastructure improvements at training facilities.
There also are plans for increasing franchise exposure in local markets and expanding fan bases through new technologies.
The plan will begin in earnest this season. The primary focus is on improving player development and raising the level of play for a league that's been maligned in the past for the quality of the product. The investment will be wide ranging, Garber said, from the youth level all the way to growing a partnership with the lower-division USL PRO as a developmental system for MLS.
Improving the on-field play won't be limited to players. There is a significant investment in education and training for coaches and referees.
"It's just a lot more focus on building the pyramid from the bottom, investing on those things that make our players better and improve our quality of play," Garber said. "And at the same time improve infrastructure and our training grounds and facilities and programs and our marketing so we can connect even more deeply than before with this new audience that really seem to be very passionate about major league soccer and soccer overall."
The timeline on the plans for growing MLS internationally was supposed to coincide with U.S. Soccer entering a successful bid for the 2022 World Cup. The tournament was ultimately awarded to Qatar, but Garber and MLS continued to keep that year as its target date. MLS believes it's the next step in the evolution of a product that a decade ago was on shaky footing before seeing massive growth and success for most of the past 10 years.
There was discussion about whether to temper such a rapid timeline once the World Cup bid didn't come to fruition. But moving forward with the original plan won out in the end, Garber said.
"We spent some time talking among ourselves and with our board and I think all of us really believe that there isn't a code cracker here that is going to make soccer the most popular sport in America or one that is more competitive with the other leagues. It's just a lot of hard work and a lot of good thinking and a lot of continued investment," Garber said. "And rather than wait for some seminal moment that may or may not arrive we just thought it was time for us to depend on ourselves, get very focused with a very committed and passionate ownership group to go out and try and compete with the world's best."