Don Garber, Major League Soccer commissioner, said he was surprised by recent criticism of the league by FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Garber defended MLS.

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Commissioner defends MLS

Don Garber, Major League Soccer commissioner, said Wednesday he was surprised by recent criticism of the league by FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

“We still have a lot of work to do — we understand and accept that,” Garber said. “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.”

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In an interview with Al-Jazeera broadcast Saturday, Blatter was highly critical of MLS and the development of the sport in general in the United States, saying “there is no very strong professional league.”

“They have just the MLS,” Blatter said. “But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

Blatter said while soccer was the most popular sport for children in the United States, officials were “still struggling” to raise soccer’s profile to the level of more established entities such as Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA.

“We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said. “But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years; it should have been done now.”

Garber, who once marketed football in soccer markets as the head of the NFL’s international division, has been MLS commissioner since 1999, the league’s fourth season. The organization he inherited was a money-losing operation in which, at one time, one owner controlled more than half the league’s teams.

In the past 13 years, the league has diversified its ownership and has expanded to 19 teams, from a low of 10 in 2004. More than half the league’s teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, and a 20th franchise — which has bidders from a half-dozen cities, including New York — can expect to pay an expansion fee nearing $100 million. Average attendance last year (18,807) was a league record.

“I know that the president (Blatter) believes in American soccer and believes in the league,” Garber said. “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.”

Garber said he would look to correct that by inviting Blatter to an MLS match.


NHL, union keep negotiating

The NHL and the players’ association met for about five hours in New York after the union made its second counteroffer of the week in an effort to end the seasonlong lockout.

A federal mediator rejoined negotiations that are expected to continue Thursday. It is believed the pension issue has been a major stumbling block in negotiations.

Both sides felt the pressure of the clock, as the union faced a self-imposed midnight EST deadline to file a disclaimer of interest; that deadline passed. League commissioner Gary Bettman has said a deal must be reached by Jan. 11 for a season to be played.

The union’s proposal Wednesday — the 109th day of the lockout — makes it four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted the negotiation process last week with a new proposal.

“There were certain things that the players’ association asked for that we agreed to. There were some things that we moved in their direction, and there were other things that we said no,” Bettman said. “That’s part of the process.”

U.S., Canada to meet in semis

John Gaudreau had a hat trick, Riley Barber scored twice and the United States beat the Czech Republic 7-0 to reach the semifinals of the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia. The Americans will play Canada on Thursday.

Defending champion Sweden will face Russia in the other semifinal of the tournament for players younger than 20.

American Engstrom retires

Two-time Olympian Molly Engstrom, 29, retired from the U.S. women’s national team. She was selected the top defenseman in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, helping the United States to a second-place finish.


Rays announce Price deal

The Tampa Bay Rays officially announced they avoided arbitration with pitcher David Price by agreeing to a one-year, $10.1125 million deal with the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner.

Price, 27, will more than double the $4.35 million he made last year, when he went 20-5 with a league-leading 2.56 earned-run average.

Jones’ wife files for divorce

The wife of ex-Atlanta Braves standout Andruw Jones filed for divorce about a week after she accused him of grabbing her neck and saying he wanted to kill her, according to a court document.

Nicole Jones said their 10-year marriage is “irretrievably broken,” according to the divorce complaint filed in a suburban Atlanta court.

Andruw Jones, 35, last month signed a $3.5 million, one-year contract with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League.


John Isner has withdrawn from the Hopman Cup because of a right-knee injury, ending the American team’s chances of reaching the final of the tennis tournament in Perth, Australia.

• Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus opened her tennis season with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Sabine Lisicki of Germany in the Brisbane International quarterfinals in Australia.

• Tennis icon Billie Jean King is branching out to bowling. King is the celebrity owner of the New York City WTT KingPins in the Professional Bowlers Association’s inaugural PBA League that begins play Jan. 19.

Seattle Times news services