This fight has been fought before, and the players lost it. Five years ago, as Major League Soccer and its Players Union were hashing out the collective bargaining agreement that expired when the month of January ran out, they caved on the eve of the season.
This time around, the resolve of the players seems absolute, and the start of the 20th MLS season, slated for March 6, is endangered. A labor stoppage is a real threat, and it could do immense harm to the league.
Then, as now, the players fought for their free agency – yes, there are still professional sports leagues in this day and age where players remain the property of their teams after their contracts run out (within the confines of the league, anyway) – as well as a slew of other issues. Emails flew around back then, urging the players to be smart with their money, plan for a potential strike and stay united. The now-retired Landon Donovan appeared to be a ringleader.
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But the players settled for a compromise of sorts, reaching a deal five days before the season was to begin. They pitched a re-entry draft, which the league liked – anything to avoid free agency – and has been in use since. Players whose clubs won't renew their contracts, or pick up remaining option years, can now be drafted by other MLS teams, who will own their rights provided they pick up the option or, in the second round, extend a bona fide offer – an exercise of typical MLS-ian convolution. Essentially, a player who is stuck in one town can go elsewhere, but the market for him remains limited to one team.
So the players made gains in 2010, as some of them have benefited from the re-entry draft, but they still fell well short of their free agency. This time around, they're digging in their heels.
Several player representatives to their Union have already said publicly that they're willing to strike over this thing. Brad Evans of the Seattle Sounders and the U.S. national team reiterated it on Monday.
"I think at this point a strike is imminent if we don't get what we want," Evans told the Associated Press. "And that's kind of where we stand. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes. … Right now, we're far off from where we want to be. It's going to take some fighting. It's going to take some grittiness."
The league, for its part, has declared itself unmovable on free agency. MLS says it runs roughshod over the single-entity structure – which it has already defended in court – and that its clubs bidding for players already in the league would imperil its vast growth of the last decade or so.
The owners would rather spend any new money – the salary cap is expected to go up – to attract new talent from outside the league or use it to retain key players, rather than let average wages rise. They speak of needing cost certainty. The players counter that, since there would still be a salary cap, the owners would retain control over their outlay.
Plainly, these two sides are on a collision course. And they understand that much is at stake. "We all have to be smart about it and we've got to look at the repercussions," Evans said. "But we've got to know that a lot of players have built this league and feel they should be rewarded with some sort of movement where they play."
That's a fair assertion. During the league's first 19 seasons, an awful lot of players have toiled for little job security, relinquishing control over their own lives for less money than they might have made in regular jobs. For a time, not so long ago, rookies could be paid as little as $12,900 per year. For a full-time job.
But the owners absorbed heavy losses and kept the league running during a lot of difficult years. The league claims it still loses some $100 million as a whole – although it won't say how it got to those numbers. Does that accounting include, for instance, the latest round of $100 million expansion fees? The signing of a much-improved broadcast deal with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision? Or the profits from the very successful Soccer United Marketing arm? It would seem unlikely.
The repercussions of a labor stoppage that Evans alludes to are potentially far-reaching. The NHL has been beset by lockouts in the last two decades, and it's inarguably slowed its growth. Some say hockey's popularity has suffered from it. The 1994 player strike in Major League Baseball may well have abetted the sport's slow fade from the national consciousness.
There has never been this much buzz about a new MLS season. Two hotly anticipated expansion teams are joining – New York City FC and Orlando City SC – and a bevy of stars has been imported. Kaka, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Villa are soccer celebrities. Sebastian Giovinco adds the cachet of bringing over an Italian national teamer in his prime. In Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea and Sacha Kljestan, yet more elite American players were brought home.
The new TV deal calls for regular time slots on fixed days, something the league has long lacked and blamed for its enduringly weak ratings. Meanwhile, excitement is building over further expansion plans for Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles – after Chivas USA was folded there – and a fourth market to be determined.
MLS has been on a steep upward trajectory for the better part of a decade. Credibility, fan culture and soccer-specific stadiums have been built. Attendance continues to grow, eclipsing 19,000 per game in 2014. Now the league seems positioned to make real inroads with that elusive television audience – its final frontier.
There's never been this much at stake.
And it's never been this likely that a season wouldn't start on time. The casual, mainstream fans the league covets – having already attracted a devoted hardcore – are fickle and unforgiving. If the build-up to opening day proves anticlimactic, getting them to recommit could prove tricky.
Certainly, that means the players have as much leverage now as ever. But if they wield it too forcefully, they might smash big cracks into the foundation they worked so hard and thanklessly to lay. Just as the owners might undermine all that investment by sitting on their cash now.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.