Updated 12/8/2009 (updated section in italics--Thanks to commenter Frank for pointing out my math problem).
Earlier this year, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that the MLS will not play matches during the group stages of the World Cup. The solid move to come into agreement with the rest of the soccer world was hailed by soccer lovers across the country. MLS has sort of moved to a single table-ish type of playoff system, which admittedly has yeilded some funny results in the two years it has been the norm, with New York Red Bulls winning the 2008 Western Conference, despite being further east than the Eastern Conference Winners Columbus Crew. (At least in 2009, Real Salt Lake won the Eastern Conference and is actually east of LA).
As much as I have criticized MLS for being something of a Mickey Mouse League, I do believe that Garber has generally steered the ship in the right direction. But as the MLS enters adolescence, the league is going to face an identity crisis or two--it is simply inevitable. To be fair, I think MLS has faced one crisis and come through pretty well. For a long time, I think the league truly wanted to be a world class league in the near term, but have struggled with the quality of play. But by admitting, at least implicitly, that they are a regional league at best and a feeder league to the top flights of soccer, MLS can focus on building a brand and building the game.
The next crisis is upon the league now. For the third time, the MLS Player's Union and the league are renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement. While the legalities of MLS player contracts and the specific terms of those contracts may be the subject of a future post, this year's negotiations are a real crux for the league. While there are those who believe that a work stoppage is possible or a lockout, I simply don't share those beliefs.
As a unit, the Player's Union have legitimate concerns about the rate of pay for the squad players, about transfers within the league, transfers to other leagues and about the development of younger players. But as a unit, I think the players also understand that without the MLS, there is little future for most of the American players. The identity crisis is about American players and the MLS, not about the Freddy Montero's or Marco Pappa's of the league. It is about Logan Pause, Kyle Beckerman, Santino Quaranta, and Jon Busch. It is also about the guys just below these men on the playing tier, players who would not even seen a professional contract in a decent league around the world because they won't be seen.
The Player's Union must realize that this kind of a battle is not fought in one fell swoop and must be managed over the long term in order to ensure the health of the league moving forward. Yes, they control a great deal and have a great possible influence on the league--but they cannot think they are Billy Big Boots who can dictate what is going to happen in the league. Threatening a strike (which hasn't happened) will get them nowhere. But I do believe the Player's Union can make some steps in the short term that will influence the direction of the league and help it grow a great deal.
1. Don't negotiate a five year CBA--make it three years maximum. In three years, MLS will be 18 and will have at least 18 and as many as 20 teams. The league will have admitted four teams in three years and if they are half as successful as Seattle was this year, they will have put the league on a pretty solid foundation for the next five years. But in three years, the Player's Union will not only have expanded, but the Union and the League will be in a much better position to assess what should be done next and why not have that built in decision point with a shorter term CBA.
2. Ask for an increased salary cap AND increased player responsibilities to sell the league. Player salaries are going to hinge, in part on ticket revenue. True, ticket revenue will not cover player salaries at all. Right now, there are 15 homes games a year, if a team can get 15,000 fans a game, that is 225,000 tickets a year. Even at $20 dollars a head on average, that is $4,500,000 a year in ticket sales alone, which is more than the current salary cap and would cover most of the team staff salary as well. Nor does this figure cover sponsorships, other game day revenue or other sources of funding for a team. But there are teams that don't draw 15,000 a game, and that is a problem. MLS clubs need to consider ways to get bodies in the seats and the only way to do that is to get the players into the grassroots. That means spending a few hours on Saturdays at the local soccer fields, seeing parents, seeing players and inviting them to games, giving out tickets to the teams that win their match, etc. Simple, even silly things, like an adopt a player program, where by youth teams can adopt an MLS player who will come to that youth team's training sessions a couple of times a month will get some local buy in and interest in the club. I think MLS needs to take a page from women's soccer in this country and spend some time selling the product at the grassroots.
3. Don't insist on a reserve division--yet. Instead of building on a top down style, like the last reserve division, the Player's Union should insist on a bottom up division, whereby each MLS team shall put into place an academy structure, with teams as young as U12 or U13 and on up to U18 and even a Super 20 or PDL team. That way the clubs build organically and then have a reserve division, whereby academy players down to the U17 level can play the reserve team matches. the Player's Union needs to work with the league to develop talent at the youth levels in order to foster the growth of the team's talent for the long term. This will also require rules that are now coming into play that allow clubs to sign players from the academy/PDL teams without having to expose them to the draft.
4. Do insist on free agency. This is probably as big, if not bigger in the long term than an increase in the salary cap. The stupidity of a player's right being held by a team even when that player's contract is up is ludicrous. No other sports league in the country has such a structure. If a player has a three year contract and that contract is completed all the way through, there is no reason why his club has any rights to assert as to his services. The owner's fear of a bidding war for players is unfounded, after all there is still a salary cap, meaning that there may be no limit as to what a player thinks he is worth, there is a limit to what a club can pay him and still remain under the salary cap. There won't be any 8 figure transfer deals or 7 figure salary offers coming into an MLS player. When a contract is up, a contract is up and neither the player nor the team should be beholden to the other or necessitating a "by your leave" approval to go elsewhere.
5. Don't keeping trying to wield the FIFA or FIFPro hammer. While FIFA and FIFPro may have some influence, FIFA more than FIFPro, going to the international body is not going to sit well either with the public or with the owners. The issue has been put out there and for now, let FIFA make a determination (which they won't) on its own. Yes, the MLS contracts probably don't meet FIFA standards, but don't keep rubbing the issue in the League's face. Keep negotiating for contracts more in line with FIFA standards, but don't expect full compliance right now, but keep moving toward it. If the Player's Union can get free agency, an increase in the salary cap, an earlier contract guarantee date, and an increase in the minimum salary, it should consider itself on good footing. If the Player's Union can get all that and a five percent cut of transfer fees, then the Union should declare victory and move on. Getting progress toward a FIFA standard contract should be the goal, not full compliance. Here's a hint, get the World Cup here in 2018 or 2022 and by that time I can guarantee you that MLS will have fully compliant player contracts.
6. Do start thinking of the Union and Players themselves as owners of the league rather than just labor. While I don't suggest caving on legitimate demands for the CBA, I think that if the Player's Union started thinking about their relationship with the League and the owners as more of a partnership than an employment relationship, with the Union responsible for not only playing but also for growing the league, I think more responsiveness in the future to player demands will be forthcoming. Over the long terms, the League needs the players and the players need the League. Better to be co-dependent and cooperative than co-dependent and combative.
This year's collective bargaining negotiations is an identity crisis time. Just as the league is turning 15, so too is the player's union and there are opportunities present for the Player's Union, I just don't want to see them blow it by trying to do too much.