By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 22, 2020) US Soccer Players – Whatever your thoughts about the value of the MLS SuperDraft, it does serve a time-honored function in the collective North American soccer consciousness. It’s the unofficial kickoff of the new season every January, a mid-winter reference point. In that regard, the 2021 rendition fell a bit flat as it unfolded virtually on Thursday. The main reason why? No one seems to have the slightest idea of when the games will actually begin. That could well unleash a cascading set of consequences across the continent.
The COVID-19 pandemic is stretching out long enough to keep packed stadiums a distant prospect for the time being. MLS has made clear that it has no desire to continue absorbing the resulting financial hit of fan-less matches on anything like the level that it did in 2020. To that effect, it has of its own volition waded back into collective bargaining with its players union, the MLSPA. That’s by using the new force majeure clause to attempt to claw back some monetary concessions.
MLS started a 30-day negotiating period that closes on January 28. After that point, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement inked just six months ago could end and a lockout or strike could follow. Talks could also continue beyond that date. So while the league released some unusual public statements urging a skeptical PA to respond, even reiterating that “we are ready to meet,” in the words of a public letter from commissioner Don Garber this week, the deadline appears to be largely self-imposed.
This is where attempts to stoke urgency run headlong into the fact that MLS has an obvious financial incentive to nudge its schedule as far into the future as possible. Doing so would buy time for coronavirus vaccines to filter into the population and loosen restrictions on large-scale gatherings. That should help restore many of its lost or dwindled revenue streams. Some outlets have reported that contingency plans are in place to start as late as May.
Mid-Spring just happens to be when the weather in many MLS markets stabilizes and attendance levels traditionally start to improve. A two-month delay might turn out to be a plausible and defensible shift in unusual times. It’s just that no one can really be sure the damage gets limited to that extent.
What may be most curious about Garber’s argument is that MLS already expressed a willingness to leave players’ 2021 wages intact in exchange for a two-year extension of the current deal, which presently runs through 2025. In doing this, the owners implicitly concede that their short-term liquidity is not in doubt. The real savings they’re staring at are way down the road. The expectation is that they’d save dozens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars by locking in the players to present-day pay scales in the midst of what’s expected to be a dramatic rising of the soccer tide in the runup to the North American World Cup in 2026.
Any new givebacks would be in addition to the many millions that the players handed back during last summer’s CBA process. They’ve already accepted a 5% pay cut, enormous slashes to bonuses, and the delay of a previously-agreed revenue sharing arrangement. These concessions reportedly ran north of $100 million. Considering this league’s existing frugal-by-design salary structures, it’s understandable if the MLSPA and its members believe they’ve already done enough for the greater good. Both the league and the union responding to each other in public highlights the intensity of the moment . It’s a marked departure from their negotiating norm.
Meanwhile the league still publicly professes a desire to kick off at or near to the usual March timeframe. This cuts against the physiological reality that a typical six-week preseason buildup to match fitness means the clubs may already be behind schedule if they’re serious about that. We also haven’t seen the past tactic of announcing details of each team’s season opener, in order to give fans dates to circle and tickets to buy.
As if to underline all these departures from past precedent, the USL Championship announced its 2021 format on Thursday. The second-tier league says it will commence its campaign in a three-week window around May 1 that will give clubs leeway to adapt to conditions on the ground. It’s not exactly a full rollout, but it is refreshingly specific compared to MLS’s holding pattern.
On top of that, more than one MLS team drafted players already signed to USL deals. Several USL Championship clubs had cleverly offered college players deals when the pandemic disrupted the NCAA season back in the late summer and fall. That could reap unprecedented transfer fees for the likes of Indy Eleven, who saw their players Josh Penn and Mitch Guitar picked by Inter Miami and Chicago respectively. Taken together, this hints at a subtle uptick in competition between the two leagues. It raises the intriguing prospect of USL reaping benefits from MLS going dark.
So everyone watches, waits, and wonders. The MLS owners fret over their dramatically altered financial projections. The players give them the metaphorical side-eye, remembering quite well the contentious conclusion of June bargaining and their lack of leverage in past situations. Fans and media ponder whether the league would really risk so many of its gains to this point by simply going dark. The shadow of a work stoppage begins to gather in everyone’s mind.
With a compressed World Cup qualifying process opening later this year, any delay or disruption in the MLS season would have an immediate effect on the USMNT and US Under-23 Olympic squad’s MLS-based contingents. Players tend to be creatures of habit. Changes to their club routines in the run-up to some very important international events would force adjustments to maintain fitness, form, and rhythm. Coaches are mulling potential stopgaps like a longer camp on the eve of Olympic qualifying in March.
“Honestly, it’s very uncertain times, especially with the starting dates and things like that and I know they’re being discussed on the daily,” Sebastian Lletget said in a media availability from January camp in Bradenton, Florida on Tuesday, noting his particular thankfulness at having January camp to stay sharp. “Normally we’d go straight to a preseason and it’d be an easier transition into our clubs, but if that’s not the case this year then we might have to just adapt and might have to kill some time off.… I’m hoping that we start by mid-February, but who knows at this point?”
It bears repeating that this situation is entirely of MLS’s own making. Are the owners just playing a poker-style bluff to squeeze a few more savings? After absorbing losses in pursuit of long-range goals for a quarter-century, would they really shut down operations just as the world is finally emerging from a profound crisis? We just don’t know.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The winding road back to the Olympics
- The LA Galaxy calls on an alum to rescue them from the doldrums
- Beckerman, the end of an era and hopes of a brighter tomorrow
- After turbulent 2020, Black Players for Change look to turn tumult to triumph
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