Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has a framed photo on the wall of his office showing two pillars of blue light piercing the night sky from the spot where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
For Garber, a native New Yorker, Sept. 11 was not only emotionally wrenching on a personal level, it would test his resolve as commissioner just two years into the job.
“In many ways, it was a day that changed everything,” he said.
Garber moved to cancel the remainder of the league’s regular season after the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 13, he held a teleconference to announce the decision, with the events weighing heavily on him.
“Initially, it took us some time to rally our thoughts and make sure we track down all of our friends and families and to reflect on what was going on Tuesday and get home safe,” he said at the time. “Very quickly after that we knew that we had a responsibility to our fans, players and teams to make a decision we felt was an appropriate statement.”
Garber, who is from Queens, was living in New Jersey in 2001. On his drive into league headquarters, he could see smoke rising from one of the towers. His thoughts turned to his brother, Mitch Garber, a lawyer whose offices were a few blocks from the World Trade Center.
Garber called his brother and told him to meet him at the MLS offices. Five hours later, Mitch Garber finally arrived, covered in ash. The two spent the night there.
“The World Trade Center was just the center point of the downtown financial world. And to see it come crumbling down so suddenly, it was just so incredibly traumatic and frightening and deeply emotional,” Garber told The Associated Press in an interview about his recollections of the day.
“When I got back to New Jersey and the town that I lived in, you could see the Manhattan skyline from my neighborhood. Ground Zero was smoldering for weeks. 9/11 didn’t end on 9/11 for any of us. The search for victims and just the enormity of what had happened lasted for weeks and months,” he said.
Canceling games was not an easy decision. It was costly at a time when the league was struggling.
Playing the rest of the regular season “just didn’t feel right for so many different reasons. I don’t think our players were ready to get back on the field, I certainly know our staffs were not ready to get out and produce games and the like. It just seemed like such an obvious thing to do, I’m glad I made that decision and I think it was the right one at that time,” Garber said. “It’s never easy to cancel games. Right? It’s actually quite difficult. In this case, it just seemed so appropriate to take a deep breath and then cancel the rest of the regular season and come back to the playoffs.”
The San Jose Earthquakes went on to beat the LA Galaxy 2-1 to win the MLS Cup later that year. At the title game, the league honored New York City firefighter Sergio Villanueva, who played soccer for the College Point Flames, a team of first responders.
Garber is the only commissioner of the nation’s major sports leagues that were faced with those decisions who remains on the job these 20 years later. The NHL, under then and current Commissioner Gary Bettman, had not yet started the season.
After the tragedy, two bright blue beams aimed at the sky were installed at the site of the towers. They’re lit every Sept. 11. Garber reached out to the New York Daily News for the photo that now hangs in his office. He also has an NYCFD helmet.
To mark Saturday’s anniversary of the attacks, MLS jerseys will feature a commemorative patch — based on the patch worn by players in 2001. A moment of silence will be held before each game.
The league is also recognizing Sept. 11 as a National Day of Remembrance and Service, with projects including packing meals for Feeding America-affiliated food banks. The league’s teams also have special events planned in their communities.
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