If you pick up our March issue (and if you haven't you should!), you'll find a preview of the 2015 Major League Soccer season. But it's more than just another year of soccer. This is MLS' 20th birthday, and the league-wide celebration begins Friday when defending champs the LA Galaxy host the Chicago Fire.
Or, it's supposed to. Right now, things aren't looking so good for the league, its players, or its fans.
As of February 1, there is no collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between players and owners expired. Even before the deal expired, both sides had worked to resolve a bunch of really big issues with the goal of entering the season with a new agreement. But on Tuesday, word from both camps makes it sound like a players strike is all but inevitable.
What It's All About
The biggest sticking point? Free agency. Right now, MLS owners control players' rights, which means they don't have the same freedom to sign with different teams like other pro athletes in America. And for the players, any new CBA must give them the right to become free agents.
"You can see the landscape of other professional leagues in the United States, in which free agency comes in many different forms. Soccer's different," FC Dallas goaltender Dan Kennedy told SI.com in January. Kennedy is also one of five Major League Soccer Players Union executive board members. "Throughout the world, soccer has unrestricted free agency. It is there. It's the norm. Certainly we're working toward that. We feel like if we're going to be a league that's one of the best in the world, I think it makes sense to abide those rules."
The league and its owners disagree. Really disagree.
MLS is built on the idea of single-entity ownership. That means owners have a stake in the league, not just their team. In other words, there are 20 teams, but they're all working to ensure the success of one organization — Major League Soccer. And while a team controls a player's rights, the players themselves sing a contract with MLS, not the Galaxy or Sounders or any other team. If the league allows free agency, it threatens the single-entity dynamic vital to MLS' success.
Players and Owners Refuse to Budge
That's the owners' argument, anyway. And they're sticking to it. Last week, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen called free agency a "waste of time" and a "go-nowhere conversation." He earned a fine from the league for making the comments because, MLS said, "We are engaged in constructive negotiations with out players and such comments are not appropriate nor helpful to the negotiations."
And according to Washington Post reporter Steven Goff, things have only gotten worse.
"Getting word MLS has rejected all of players' proposed compromises," he tweeted. "Hardliners are 'running league into ditch.'" Another tweet: "Says well-placed source: 'It's shocking. Almost as if owners want a work stoppage. They see players as incidental to MLS' growth.'"
Owners did throw players one bone: Any player 32 years or older who has spent 10 years with one club is eligible to become a free agent. The players, of course, resoundingly rejected that proposal — not only because it would only benefit one player (Brad Davis of the Houston Dynamos), but because it's insulting.
From Pitch to Picket Line?
All of that leaves the start of MLS' 20th season in jeopardy. Last night, Goff reported that there hasn't been any significant progress made on a deal. Without some movement, players could — and probably will — walk off the field.
"The one thing the leaders of this league, the core group, understands is that we are willing to strike for this and we feel more united and more educated than ever," Kennedy, the FC Dallas goalkeeper, said. "That is a huge asset."
What was supposed to be a celebration of the Little League That Could and the growth of soccer in the United States will kick off with a major league embarrassment. The first work stoppage in MLS history is the last thing players, the league, and especially fans need.
But the labor unrest overtaking MLS does prove one thing — in the worst possible way: The league is finally ready to play with the big boys of professional American sports.
Photo: Kelvin Kuo/AP Photo