As anyone who's been paying even the slightest bit of attention surely knows by now, the start of the MLS season is very much in jeopardy. The players' union and management are finally digging in for some serious negotiations -- even including a federal mediator -- but they are really leaving it up to the last-minute at this point, with negotiations already scheduled through Wednesday. With teams scheduled to travel on Thursday, there really isn't much time to get a deal worked out.
So, what do you want to know?
Thanks for asking. Why are they waiting so long to get this thing done?
Unfortunately, this is how things tend to go. But even by sports standards, this is getting a tad ridiculous. Back in 2010, they had agreed to a deal a whole five days before First Kick.
That seems like a bad sign.
Well, it's certainly not good. But the recent rhetoric has been more encouraging and they've already announced an extension to the Tuesday deadline, which suggests there's at least progress being made. It at least sounds like neither side is itching to make a statement.
Remind me about the main points.
Right now the over-arching issue really seems to be all about free agency. The players want it and the owners are extremely reluctant to give it. Money and playing conditions are obviously issues as well, but there seems to be more common ground there.
So it's that simple then? No free agency means no season?
That's basically the line the players have been giving, but there's probably some room for compromise between full-blown European-style free agency and what players have now.
What do players have now?
Not much. In the last CBA, they got the Re-Entry Draft, which basically kept teams from holding onto players to whom they had only passing interest. But teams still hold the rights to players even after they leave the league and all but a few players have virtually no say in where they play. The idea of teams openly bidding against one another -- as they do to some extent in virtually every high-level professional league around the world -- is so foreign to MLS that it's hard to imagine how it might even work.
Why don't the owners want free agency?
The official line is that it disrupts the financially sound business model they all bought into. Although no league officials say this on the record, there's also a belief that it would undermine single-entity.
Explain single-entity again.
Here's the basics: The league is considered one big company. All the contracts are owned by the league and there's a type of revenue sharing that is really unheard of in other leagues.
Is there some kind of middle ground?
It's obviously a lot easier for some blogger to decide such a thing, but there have been some ideas floated that make sense for both sides. One effectively allows teams to offer raises to players on opposing teams, but only up to a certain amount. There have been other suggestions that players would need to have minimum service times in order to have any kind of free movement.
Does that really count as free agency?
I suppose that depends on your perspective. It's probably not quite what the players wanted when they set out on this path, but if it leads to players having more control over where they make a living, that's surely an improvement.
What's the league's reluctance to letting players have even that?
The big argument on the owners' side is that they're worried about player salaries escalating uncontrollably. And there's the single-entity thing.
Do we buy that explanation?
Not really. A salary-cap should, well, cap salaries and there are plenty of examples of employees being able to work where they want within a company with multiple offices. It really doesn't seem that complicated.
Are owners mainly just interested in having control?
Well, I'm not saying they aren't saying that.
Would the owners really let the players walk over this?
That would seem like a really stupid thing to do.
Would the players really strike over not having full-blown free agency?
That would seem like a really stupid thing to do.
But what if there is a strike?
That would suck. Sure, missing a week's worth of games might not be that big of a deal and maybe fans could even live without MLS for two weeks. But eventually, they just start making other plans and that's when the real damage happens.
Would the league cancel games or reschedule them?
That's entirely dependent on the length of a work stoppage. If the first month of the season is cancelled, the league will probably figure out a way to replay those games at other points in the season. But if a work-stoppage goes on much longer than that, canceling games would be pretty much impossible to avoid.
What would happen to the USL?
All indications are that their schedule won't be affected.
What about their rosters?
That's another issue. A lot of teams, especially those like S2 who are owned by a MLS team, were expecting their rosters to be bolstered by players loaned from the parent club. That's almost certainly not going to happen if there's a strike. They'd probably need to sign more players than they had originally planned on and may even look to the NASL for some loans.
How do you see this ending?
If I knew, I'd have led with that instead of sticking it way down here. But I'm an optimist and I think something is going to get hammered out. This has all the makings of the greatest season in MLS history. There are two new teams -- one of whom is getting ready to play its first-ever game in front of 60,000 fans -- and a TV contract that's going to pay $90 million a year. Players can really make a life in MLS, something that seemed unthinkable as recently as 10 years ago. It's not perfect, but it's getting better every year. It would be awful to risk throwing away all that progress. Both sides have a ton to lose and in situations like that, a deal usually gets done.