MLS 3.0: Owners, Players Agree on New MLS CBA

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The story of Major League Soccer is the story of the growth of association football in the United States in the years after the United States Soccer Federation was awarded the right to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. In the years since the league’s inception the sport has grown to a level never before imagined, besting average live attendance numbers for both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League and approaching the realization of a twenty-four-team league by the year 2020.

Once that dream has been achieved American soccer must make yet another giant leap. This Last Word on Sports series seeks to spell out how Major League Soccer must adapt after expansion, and profiles many of our writers’ varying opinions on where the league will spend most of its resources to continue its growth in recognition, talent, and renown. Last Word on Sports will also take a brief look back at the two major periods in the league’s history; the juxtaposition of these periods marks an important milestone in American soccer and helps set the stage for what Major League soccer will seek to become in MLS 3.0.

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Up until yesterday evening, it was uncertain whether Major League Soccer’s (MLS) 20th season–it’s first under a newly restructured and lucrative television deal–would start on time. The MLS Players Union had stated their goal of gaining free agency for players throughout the offseason; beginning in February several players announced a new collective bargaining agreement proposal that did not include free agency would trigger a player strike, potentially crippling the league’s impressive growth. Talks reached the eleventh hour, but owners & players were able to forge an MLS CBA compromise on free agency as MLS ramps up for its biggest season ever.

Talks seemed to be headed nowhere as late as the early hours of Wednesday–the owners and Commissioner Don Garber tried to discretely leave the negotiations around 11:30PM for dinner, as reported by Aaron Stollar on Twitter. The owners’ offer at the time was free agency at age 32 for players who had been in the league with the same team for a decade; it appears the players voted 18-1 to strike later that night and continued their discussions until nearly 6am. Commissioner Garber and the owners filed into the building around 11am the next morning, followed shortly thereafter by the MLS Players Union representatives from nearly all MLS clubs.Over the course of the next several

Over the course of the next several hours, the sides nudged closer to one another, but it was still uncertain whether a deal could be struck before the scheduled first kick. The Twitter hashtag #MLSCBA was trending in the United States throughout the final hours of negotiations as people scrambled to find any news they could before finalizing their weekend plans (or agonizing over their already-booked accommodations).

The players were adamant that free agency be made available to a wider array of current players, as the owners’ initial counter-offer applied to only one active MLS player, Brad Davis of the Houston Dynamo. Ultimately, a compromise was struck: free agency would be an option for players who had played in the league for eight years and were 28 years of age at the time their contract expired. The minimum salary for first team players was also raised to $60,000, a sizeable jump from $42,000 under the previous MLSCBA. Further details on the agreement are still forthcoming, but it can be argued that this limited form of free agency is a huge step for the league and its players.

The most important piece of this deal, however, was the sizeable jump in the league minimum salary, which firmly places MLS at the top of the U.S. Soccer echelon. Players under the previous CBA may have been lured to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the U.S.’s second-tier league, due to the parity in salary for a NASL club starter in relation to an MLS player at the bottom of the roster. NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson has openly and publicly stated his desire for the league to compete directly with MLS in the first tier of professional soccer in the United States. On the eve of the MLSCBA agreement, he was candid about the differences between his league and MLS:

“First of all, I’m glad that they reached an agreement. I think that it’s important that both sides have agreed that these are terms that they accept. I don’t think what’s being called ‘free agency’ is very advantageous for the players. You look at our league where guys sign one or two-year deals and then are able to go back out and test the market with any team in the world. That’s free agency, in my opinion, but they agreed to it. That’s their business and we wish them well.

“It won’t effect anything we’re doing. I think you find that more and more of the agents and more and more of the players start to realize what free agency really looks like when they come into the NASL and that’s one of our advantages, one of our unique selling points, that a player can come in and prove himself at a very high level and, in a short period of time, go back out there onto the market.” (SBI)

He was most certainly right on the money in his description of free agency, but your average NASL first-team player won’t make half what someone on an MLS club’s expanded roster makes under the new MLS CBA. It is difficult to imagine the NASL competing with MLS directly under the newly adopted agreement without a major increase in investment from the league’s owners. This may be the CBA that marks the beginning of the end for NASL’s ambitions beyond second-tier; it may possibly even be the beginning of a fight for NASL to remain the second tier in the U.S. soccer echelon as the United Soccer League (USL) has grown into an equally powerful force in the landscape.

MLS’s two newest additions are scheduled to face off in front of a 65,000+ crowd in the Citrus Bowl Sunday; the anticipated crowd will mark the second-largest league debut in MLS history, and Orlando City SC and New York City FC will duel in a nationally-televised affair. With MLS adding international stars Kaká and Davíd Villa to its ranks, this may be the year the league has it’s coming out party beyond North America.

A new agreement with Sky Sports will expand upon previous deals in the United Kingdom, bringing MLS to the most viewers in England in league history. Some argue the time slots won’t be so favorable but with beloved English stars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard slated to join the league sometime this summer, one would assume some reciprocity from across the Atlantic when their biggest active players show their skill playing on an MLS side.

With the MLS CBA negotiations behind them, the league and clubs are ramping up for the beginning of the most-anticipated MLS season since the league was formed. One thing is certain: MLS’s star is rising at home and maybe, just maybe, it will rise abroad too.

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