“While recently discussing promotion and relegation, I made some inappropriate comments about Chattanooga. I commend all of the soccer fans in Tennessee and the Southeast for their record-breaking support of Chattanooga FC, and apologize to the passionate supporters of the club.”
Don Garber still may not be eager to introduce relegation to American soccer, but the MLS commissioner apparently had second thoughts about his earlier assessment of the soccer scene in Chattanooga.
While speaking last weekend at BlazerCon, a two-day convention for soccer fans in Brooklyn, N.Y., Garber slammed Chattanooga with what some analysts called a "cheap shot" that he later apologized for.
In the course of a conversation about the structure of the league that included unprintable language, Garber invoked Chattanooga in a manner that drew the ire of the Scenic City's soccer faithful and supporters of its team, the Chattanooga Football Club.
"If you're investing billions and billions of dollars, which we are now at about $3.5 billion invested in 20 years, to build something in Kansas City and they have a (bad) season, to think they might be playing in Chattanooga in a stadium of 4,000 people on a crappy field with no fans, makes no sense," Garber said.
In fact, Chattanooga FC — which has generated its own hardcore fan base nicknamed the "Chattahooligans," who defended their team on Twitter — drew 18,227 fans this past summer when it hosted New York Cosmos B in the National Premier Soccer League title match. That's more attendance than the University of Tennesee at Chattanooga football program routinely gets, and, according to Stephen Schmidt, writing for SB Nation's Twice A Cosmo blog, more than the average attendance of seven current MLS franchises.
In fact, Chattanooga FC's prominence as a rising star in the national soccer scene might have played a part in what Garber said. Sean McDaniel, the club's general manager, indicated as much.
"I don't think that Chattanooga was mentioned arbitrarily," McDaniel said. "There was some intent. Now he was misguided and uninformed, but I think it was said with a purpose. Likely because we've been on the front of some people's minds. That one rolled off the tongue."
Garber's comments — earlier reported in a story about BlazerCon on thepostgame.com — were made in the context of a conversation about whether teams should be transferred between multiple leagues based on how well they perform. Garber doesn't believe such a hierarchical system of relegation/promotion is needed in MLS, though it is routinely used in other countries.
McDaniel acknowledged the context of what Garber said.
"I think the point was more towards resistance to promotion and relegation, that was probably what his intended purpose was," McDaniel said. "I think he was saying 'We see that Chattanooga has had success, but we're not sure they can compete at this level.'"
After Garber's comments came to light, he apologized to Chattanooga FC and its supporters in a statement released Friday. Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for MLS, wrote in an email to the Times Free Press that Garber also "corresponded with Chattanooga FC about his comments."
"While recently discussing promotion and relegation, I made some inappropriate comments about Chattanooga," Garber said in the statement. "I commend all of the soccer fans in Tennessee and the Southeast for their record-breaking support of Chattanooga FC, and apologize to the passionate supporters of the club."
McDaniel wasn't caught off guard by what Garber said — in fact, he knew about it even before it received media play.
Ultimately, it became the latest opportunity for Chattanooga FC and its fans to make a statement about soccer's status in Chattanooga.
"(CFC co-founder) Tim Kelly was there, so we knew this was coming out a week ago," Garber said. "He didn't have his facts right, and you can't make a statement like that without having your facts right.
"He underestimated the quality of our fans and the quality of the time. Before you make a bold statement like that, you should fact-check, because our fans are passionate and they won't let that fall through the cracks."
"While recently discussing promotion and relegation, I made some inappropriate comments about Chattanooga," Garber said. "I commend all of the soccer fans in Tennessee and the Southeast for their record-breaking support of Chattanooga FC, and apologize to the passionate supporters of the club."