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Soccer-Garber hoping MLS's World Cup investment pays off

Reuters

By Simon Evans

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 10 (Reuters) - Major League Soccer has spent heavily to bring in World Cup players, and commissioner Don Garber is hoping that strategy pays off with a post-Brazil boost in interest in the league.

MLS clubs, encouraged and helped by the league, invested in the past year on deals to bring key United States national team players Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey back from Europe.

Then, last week, Spain's David Villa signed for New York City FC who will compete in the 20-year-old competition for the first time next season.

"We want to be one of the best leagues in the world and in order to do that we want to be a league of choice for top players - not just to finish their career but to play at the prime of their career," said Garber in a telephone interview.

"You can see that with Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey and you could say David Villa who is in his early thirties but, like the other two, had many options and chose MLS," he said.

MLS helped Seattle Sounders pay their club record transfer fee to bring Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur in August on a Premier League level salary while Toronto paid $10 million to bring the 26-year-old Bradley back from Italy.

Garber said those moves were not simply about strengthening the specific clubs but were made with the conscious aim of ensuring a strong connection between the World Cup in Brazil and MLS.

"Absolutely. We knew the World Cup would be big and we want to be part of the conversation and in order to do that we wanted to have players who will be part of the story. We are very confident that it will pay off," said Garber.

U.S coach Juergen Klinsmann has named ten MLS players in his squad while another ten will feature for other teams including Costa Rica, Honduras, Iran and Australia during the tournament which kicks off on Thursday.

For a factbox on MLS players in the World Cup click on

Garber says the World Cup pushes soccer into the American mainstream and the country's World Cup rights holders ESPN are expecting record viewing numbers as the sport continues to grow in what was for many years was soccer's barren land.

American fans are travelling to Brazil in huge numbers with more than 150,000 tickets sold to U.S. citizens - more than for any other nation other than Brazil itself.

Also seeking to ride the wave of interest in the game after the tournament, top European clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid will head to North America for lucrative pre-season friendly games.

"Not so long ago we wondered what soccer in America would look like and where would Major League Soccer fit in the narrative," said Garber.

"Here we are in 2014 and our country represents the largest market for FIFA television rights in the world, our international (friendly) games are more successful than anywhere else in the world and our league continues to grow and earn the respect of the world both on and off the field.

"Every four years the World Cup really elevates the sport in our country to higher and higher levels. It seems we are still on the upward trajectory for the sport, the league has been growing significantly and then we get these great moments every four years."

While attendances in MLS have continued to grow and the standard of play gradually improves, the league has struggled with television ratings although it hopes a new deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision can help change that.

In the past those involved with developing the sport in the U.S. have feared that a poor showing from the team could lead to setbacks in their project to popularise soccer but Garber says that risk is no longer a worry.

"The sport is so secure today and grown so significantly that any one moment is not going to move it to incredible levels of popularity and failure on the global stage is not going to knock it off its path.

"If we don't do well it is more of a missed opportunity versus something that hurts the business or slows down the league." (Reporting By Simon Evans)

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