Where does Major League Soccer stand as its 14th season careens toward conclusion with Sunday's MLS Cup? Two men with insight weighed in Monday, when MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave his annual State of the League address and Crew General Manager Mark McCullers spoke to Alive at length.

Where does Major League Soccer stand as its 14th season careens toward conclusion with Sunday's MLS Cup? Two men with insight weighed in Monday, when MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave his annual State of the League address and Crew General Manager Mark McCullers spoke to Alive at length.

Garber painted a rosy picture of a league in slow but steady ascendancy, while McCullers offered a similarly optimistic view tempered by acknowledgement of significant challenges for the adolescent league.

Both men said implementing a new collective bargaining agreement is the top priority heading into 2010. The current agreement expires Jan. 31.

The MLS Players Union wants more freedom for players, but Garber insisted the league would not budge from the conservative financial model it was built on. He also said talk of a work stoppage is premature and counterproductive.

"I expect that this will be a difficult agreement to finalize, but I am very confident that we will be able to reach a productive agreement," Garber said.

McCullers said the league must be sensitive to player demands or risk losing key talent and diluting the quality of play, especially with more expansion teams coming in Philadelphia (2010), Portland (2011) and Vancouver (2011), and talk of a 19th team in Montreal.

"With the continued rate of expansion, we need to make sure that there's no drop-off in the level of play and that the player pool is able to support an increased number of teams," McCullers said.

Speaking of expansion, Garber praised the first-year Seattle Sounders, calling the club "a real indication as to what this sport can be in this country." The league-wide attendance average was level with last year at about 16,000, but Seattle averaged more than 31,000 playing in Qwest Field.

The ideal in MLS for years has been intimate, soccer-specific stadiums, but Seattle has had success playing in a cavernous downtown NFL stadium. Isolated facilities like Crew Stadium, L.A.'s Home Depot Center and Dallas' Pizza Hut Park meet MLS criteria but lack nearby nightlife options - something MLS could consider as it seeks new investors.

Locally, the Crew is focused on growing business at its current location, but in light of the Blue Jackets' financial woes, the city must develop a cooperative public-private mechanism to maintain competitive facilities five to 10 years from now when it's time to improve or replace Crew Stadium, McCullers said.

McCullers also wants the league to help clubs funnel players from their youth development programs into the senior rosters, a much more difficult prospect since MLS eliminated the reserve league this season and slashed rosters from 30 to 24 players.

Both Garber and McCullers see the growth of supporters groups such as Columbus' Hudson Street Hooligans, Crew Union and La Turbina Amarilla as a crucial, positive sign for the future of MLS.

"We are beginning to see a real evolution of the soccer fan in our country," Garber said.