The Clock Ticks and an MLS Strike Looms

Free agency is the issue that will determine whether the season starts on time
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, February 26, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

Things seem so normal right now around MLS, but everyone knows just how different all could be within a week.

No Collective Bargaining Agreement, no First Kick. And the clock is ticking.

For all of the positives that MLS can point to right now, including an impressive new TV deal with Sky Sports to show matches in Great Britain, nothing looms over the start of the season more than what’s happening in New York City. If MLS and the MLA Players Union can’t agree on a CBA soon, all of the good gets forgotten, quickly.

We’ve been down this road before with MLS and the players union. The last CBA negotiations in 2010 didn’t get settled until five days before the season began, and it was touch and go even then. But back then, the season started on March 25, so there was more time to get things settled.

But not this time. Opening night is March 6, when the LA Galaxy hosts Chicago at the StubHub Center. That means there are 19 fewer days to get a deal done than in in 2010, and the stakes are much, much higher.

This big issue, of course, is free agency. The MLSPU wants it, in some form, while the league wants nothing to do with it. It’s the issue that the union is willing to strike over, while it seems like MLS is willing to let them strike, as they see free agency as a threat to the single-entity setup that the league tries very hard to protect. It’s an issue that a federal mediator has to try and help create an agreement on, because both sides seem to be very set in what they want, or don’t want. It will be a tougher task for the mediators this time around to get the league and union on the same page than in 2010, which was almost a disaster before mediation happened.

Other issues of major impact, including increases in the salary cap and minimum salary, seem to be ones that can be taken care of soon. Numerous reports indicate the issue isn’t whether MLS will agree to those increases, but how much of an increase there will be. But unlike free agency, those issues won’t be what a strike is based on.

A strike could mean a loss of valuable momentum, and money, for the league. With new TV contracts starting with both ESPN and Fox Sports, two new clubs in the league in Orlando and New York City, a new conference setup and the addition of big names, both returning (Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan) and new (Kaká, David Villa), it is very important for MLS to get started on time, or, at worse, to have a short strike.

If there’s a strike, the impact would go beyond MLS. The USL would be greatly affected, as the eight MLS clubs that have teams in that league would have to scramble to put together a roster of players not under contract to the parent club, and those who are affiliates of MLS teams would lose players that are on loan to them.

Another place where the strike could have a major effect is the CONCACAF Champions League. If DC United and/or Montréal make the CCL semifinals, but a strike is underway, the clubs may be forced to forfeit their matches and drop out of the competition. As MLS places a lot on the Champions League to gauge where they stand against the rest of CONCACAF, especially Mexico and Liga MX, having to drop out of the CCL, especially at the semifinal stage, would be a massive embarrassment to the league.

Of course, the impact of any strike on MLS would be big, but it would depend on how long it would go. If a strike lasts for just a week or two, then they could be easily rescheduled and MLS could have its 34-game season without any major effects in the schedule. If most of March is lost, then the lost matches could be rescheduled to weeknights, like a Wednesday, that wouldn’t interfere with the US Open Cup or other prescheduled matches.

But if a strike goes into April, then things become very tough. Depending on how much money the MLSPU has in its strike fund, money for some players could start getting very tight. Clubs may have to start laying off employees, as the income from matches won’t be coming in. Things start getting very dicey, and then we start getting concerned about the long-term impact on the league. But not before, and that’s why getting a deal done soon, even if a week or two of the season is lost, is crucial.

There has been a strike in top flight North American soccer before, but it wasn’t about money. In 1979, the NASL Players Association declared a strike to try and force the NASL to recognize them and negotiate a CBA. It failed miserably, as some players stayed away while others kept on playing, especially foreign-born players who weren’t sure if supporting a strike meant having to leave the country. The work stoppage, what there was of it, lasted less than a week.

That’s a long way from this situation. While the 1979 strike had practically no effect on the NASL after that week, an MLS strike in 2015 could damage the league for years. Then again, it could have minimal impact and the league would be able to grow and expand at its current pace. We really don’t know. All we can do is hope that a strike doesn’t happen.

And while we hope, they talk. The federal mediators do their job, working with MLS and the MLSPU to try and get the big issues settled. Players and owners go in and out of New York City, hoping that the issues can get settled. But it all depends on free agency, in some form. Whether a strike happens or not will be determined on that one issue. Neither side is budging. And that is worrying, for all MLS fans.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. 

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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