Deal or no deal? At this point, it hardly matters. A players strike, which would surely be brief given the limited resources the union can bring to bear, will harm Major League Soccer less in the long term than the league’s failure to seize the moment.
MLS has been at the crossroads before, and the league has usually gone the right away. From near-death in 2001, the league rebuilt itself with surprising speed and strength. This country is never going to be easy for a soccer league — it competes domestically with four better-established team sports, and it competes globally with much better-established soccer leagues — but MLS has carved out a nice sturdy niche.
And even as the soccer-hating dinosaurs slowly die off, some people in this country will always be unreachable. Some fans will always be Eurosnobs, much in the same way that some people refuse to watch Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons because their cynicism won’t allow them to believe it could ever be as good as the old days. Some coaches will always insist MLS academies don’t mimic Germany’s or England’s or Bolivia’s to their satisfaction, and they’ll try to steer players away. Some people won’t be happy until the USA has a promotion/relegation pyramid like the one that took England 100 years to establish. You can’t please everyone, and trying to win over the crankiest people on Twitter is a fool’s errand.
Nor would a simple raise in salaries make MLS clubs the equal of Everton, let alone Manchester United. MLS could quintuple its salaries, and couch potatoes choosing between La Liga and MLS on TV may still opt for the former more often than not. There is no amount of reasonable spending that will build Barcelona in New England’s green and pleasant land.
But the league’s goal of being a “league of choice” for players and fans is still reasonable. MLS doesn’t have to be No. 1 — it just has to be worth seeing. Yet through its stubbornness in collective bargaining, the league is undermining its “league of choice” goals.
As former MLS player Bobby Warshaw put it: “The players will point out that there’s a strange contradiction here. The league talks about being a ‘destination league,’ both for players and for fans, yet they do nothing to make the league attractive for players, which would, ultimately, make it more attractive to fans.”
A league with no free agency and with bureaucratic restrictions on player rights will not be a “league of choice” for young players, many of whom are opting to go to Mexico, let alone Europe. It will not bring Herculez Gomez home from Mexico. It will not attract international players who are choosing between MLS and the Netherlands.
And the eagerness to play hardball with players sends a poor message to fans. How are fans supposed to believe the league is on the rise when it’s claiming poverty and insisting that the whole structure falls apart if an eight-year veteran is allowed to negotiate a pay raise or move to a city closer to his wife’s family?
The league’s stance is simply tone-deaf. No one believes that MLS will go broke if two teams bid up a veteran’s player to $200K when, thanks to the salary cap, that money simply comes from another player’s potential pay. No one understands why it’s OK to compete in every other sense — for Designated Players, in building youth academies, in worldwide scouting — but it’s not OK for teams to compete for a non-DP’s signature. The fan base is too sophisticated, and it no longer sees the need for MLS to take baby steps on player movement while it’s making bold investments in academies, stadiums and Steven Gerrard. And MLS has simply not made a plausible case for maintaining its grip on intraleague movement.
If MLS folded tomorrow, it would still deserve a ton of credit for building the game in the USA, just as we credit the decidedly non-traditional NASL of the 70s and 80s for stirring up some interest in the soccer-unfriendly country. What’s been done over the last two decades is remarkable. But that doesn’t mean the league can afford to stagnate. Over the years, it has evolved — allocations aren’t driven from the league office any more, clubs have more control, and the salary budget bends to include Designated Players. That evolution needs to keep going, and what the players are asking is far cheaper than the other investments the league is making.
I’m sometimes asked to write a sequel to Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer. At this point, that book would be Short-Term Thinking: How MLS Threw It All Away.
This offseason was the perfect time to demonstrate that MLS was stepping confidently into the modern soccer world, ready to compete for players and fans. That step forward would’ve required significant time to figure out how to move into free agency and perhaps toss out the vestiges of the league’s “allocation” system. They’ve run out of time to do it. MLS may eventually force its players back onto the field, but the league and its players will be poorer in the long run.