From the outside looking in, life as an American soccer player has never looked better. Unlike many from previous generations, today's players have very real hopes of being able to play their entire careers on home soil, making a decent living doing so.
By 2011, there will be 18 top-tier teams in North America playing in some of the most desirable regions of the world. Those 18 teams will provide jobs for at least 360 players who will make, on average, about $100,000 per season -- even excluding the very highest paid players. That's certainly not as good money as professional athletes in some other leagues stand to make, but like those other athletes, American soccer players can reasonably hope that their jobs are here for the foreseeable future.
Compared to the prospects of similar players as recently as 10 years ago -- to speak nothing of those players 20 years ago -- this is an enormous accomplishment.
Viewed from this perspective, it's easy to wonder why players would be willing to risk it all with a strike that could derail what might be the apex of soccer in the United States.
As anyone who is at all familiar with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement under which Major League Soccer players compete, the situation is not nearly this cut and dry.
Even excluding players on the developmental and reserve rosters, about a third of the league's players are paid less than $50,000 annually, have very little job security and have almost no say into what kit they don.
Attempting to read between the lines of statements by both representatives of the players union and the league, it's hard to imagine any of these issues being sufficiently resolved to both sides' liking.
Since few details of the actual negotiations are publicly available, we can only speculate as to what has transpired:
- The salary cap will likely be raised significantly, perhaps as much as $300,000 with annual escalators, but we're still looking at a total pool of less than $3 million per team.
- Players making the minimum of $34,000 probably stand to get a raise, but I'm willing to bet most of the increased salary pool is going to go to the Freddy Monteros and Nate Jaquas of the league, not the Stephen Kings and Terry Bosses.
- More contracts will be guaranteed, but the league has made it clear that all of them won't.
- Real free agency, with teams bidding for the services of players, is not going to happen. I get the sense that even a hybrid free agency in which players are signed by the league but get to play for a team of their choosing after their contract runs out is something over which the league is willing to draw a thick black line.
Of all these issues, and this is not even a full rundown, free agency and guaranteed contracts are the biggest. Understandably, players want job security and more say into where they play. As it stands now, even if a team decides it no longer wants a player, that player is essentially left with two options if the team refuses to trade his rights: leave the league or retire. Many can also be cut at any point without so much as a severance package.
Commentators, and probably most fans, have tended to side with what seems like the commonsense position of the players on these issues, and some may even think that the league would never be willing to let its players strike over what seem like easily solvable issues. After all, as long as the league owns the players' rights and is the entity signing their paychecks, allowing limited player-controlled movement and guarantees shouldn't lead to skyrocketing salaries.
That opinion, at least on freedom, misses one key issue: The league, rightly or wrongly, believes at its core that part of what has made MLS successful is parity. If players are allowed even this much freedom, they will undoubtedly flock to places like Seattle -- well-run franchises that play in world-class facilities, in front of sellout crowds and for owners that are willing to spend on the little extras.
To be sure, the Seattles of the league would welcome this change. But MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and probably the vast majority of MLS brass, are convinced that a significant portion of the league would be left behind. In turn, this would significantly slow the league's growth, hurt TV contracts and ultimately lead the league down the path of the failed NASL.
There will be those that argue that other U.S. pro leagues have this kind of dichotomy but manage to thrive anyway. As much as soccer has grown in popularity, though, it's hard to argue that the sport has the kind of cultural cache that allows the Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Clippers and Oakland Raiders of the world to continue to exist.
There may be more room for compromise on the issue of guarantees, though. One reading of the tea leaves suggests MLS, which already guarantees some contracts, could go as far as guaranteeing all or most non-Developmental players during the season the way most FIFA leagues do. The league will never allow itself to shoulder the risk of fully guaranteed contracts -- similar to those in the NBA and MLB -- but this seems like a reasonable compromise. I would suggest there being a limit of three years on the contracts as a way of keeping players from being thrust into a life of what amounts to indentured servitude.
In most labor disputes, I tend to side with the workers. There's no doubt the players make a great case here, and you can't blame them for wanting more control over their careers. But I really think this is the wrong time and the wrong place to draw the line.
Owners are not going to budge free agency, no matter how well you make your case. I understand that this, even more than money, is the biggest issue and probably the coalescing force behind unionization in the first place. But a strike will get you no closer to your goal. Most owners are losing money already and won't flinch if a some games have to be canceled. Eventually, you'll be forced to sign a contract with nothing but a frustrated workforce and angry fans to show for it.
I say take the increased salary cap, the raised salary floor and the modest improvement in stability, and sign a two- or three-year contract. By that time, the league may even be turning a profit and you'll be in a much better position to negotiate.
Is there any scenario in which you think MLS players should strike?
Only if league won't grant fully guaranteed contracts (0 votes)
Only if league won't allow player free agency (0 votes)
Only if players don't get more security AND freedom (1 vote)
Players shouldn't strike under any circumstances (0 votes)
Players should always reserve the right to strike (4 votes)
5 total votes