| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Feb 27 David Beckham may have left but the goal for Major League Soccer (MLS) remains the same, to be recognised as one of the world's top leagues within a decade.
"By 2022," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on Wednesday at his annual state of the league address of his ideal for the league to be amongst the world's elite. "That's our goal.
"I'm not saying we'll be the biggest league in the world but we believe we will be one of the top leagues."
The MLS enjoyed unprecedented worldwide publicity and growth during Beckham's stint with the Los Angeles Galaxy, which ended last season, but not everyone was impressed.
Earlier this year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter took a shot at the league, saying he was surprised it was still struggling to make inroads in the super-competitive North American professional sports market after hosting the World Cup in 1994.
In his address, Garber acknowledged it still had a long way to go before it could generate the same interest as the National Football League or Major League Baseball.
"Respect for MLS is greater abroad than it is among the soccer community in the USA," Garber said while adding that Blatter was underestimating the progress made by MLS.
"I actually spoke to him recently, in France, and I invited him to come and see the MLS first hand and we expect he will," Garber told Reuters.
"He's hoping to come over in the summer and (will) attend a game and I think he'll see how far we've come."
Comparing the league to other North American professional sports may be a mute exercise, and Garber said the growth of MLS could be better measured against other soccer leagues.
MLS, which was struggling to survive a decade ago, has grown from 10 to 19 teams and has average attendances of 19,000.
"That's the seventh highest in the world," Garber said. "And we're only in our 18th season. Other leagues have been around for more than 100 years."
Garber outlined his plans to keep growing the sport in North America, with the focus on enhancing the quality of play, growing the fan base and youth programmes and making major capital investments.
He also reiterated plans to add a 20th team, ideally in New York, but said MLS would look at other cities if a proposed deal on a new stadium in the Big Apple fell through.
"If we're not successful we'll throw our hands up. We'd take a step back and see if there's another market," he said.
"I don't want to put a year limit on it but if it's not making progress, the time will come. There's a lot of activity in other markets.
"It's the biggest challenge we've ever faced ... but this is an incredibly valuable market. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, so it's worth the effort." (Editing by Greg Stutchbury)