In the end, Major League Soccer players won nothing, basically. Their two achievements in this round of collective bargaining - an extremely limited form of free agency, and miniscule rises in the minimum salary and salary cap - will soon be forgotten. The league's byzantine system of player allocation will (mostly) remain, along with the obscure, closed-door ways it sets its rules. While soccer's growth in America continues to explode, the league's owners will continue to reap most of the benefits, while the vast majority of players limp along behind.
Perhaps the main thing the players can be thankful for is that they managed to only sign up for five more years of this, rather than eight as the owners wanted.
The "free agency" contained in the deal is virtually unrecognizable to fans of other sports. Even those who manage to wait until the cutoff - age 28, with eight years in the league - will only have the luxury of choosing which team to sign with. Their salary increases, moving from one team to another, will still be strictly controlled. Effectively, it's as if collusion - which baseball owners were fined huge sums for three times in the 1980s - had been legalized.
The waiting period for this limited free agency, too, is far more draconian than other sports. The NFL, NBA, and NHL all provide for some form of free agency after 3-4 seasons in the league; even baseball, which doesn't release players to free agency for six years, has an arbitration process provided for players after three years.
Some will argue that MLS is different than the other American pro leagues, and while it's by far the youngest, that's no reason to assume that it should be different, or that free agency would be a death knell. The unfettered free agency in soccer leagues around the world has yet to kill the sport in those places, and even the four-year-old NASL allows player movement at the end of contracts, with no real repercussions.
If anything, I could argue that the MLS owners got an even better deal - the ability to publicly pay lip service to the idea of free agency, while retaining cost control and preventing most players from ever reaching the ability to take advantage of that function.
The players' other achievement - getting more money for the league's lowest-paid players - is helpful, but also not exactly landmark. The league's minimum salary was raised from $36,500 per year to $60,000 per year, and the league's salary cap will go up from $3.1 million to $3.5 million (mostly, it must be said, to accomodate the minimum-salary increase). This is certainly helpful for the 15-20% of the league's players who were making the minimum, who now can live like college graduates instead of K-Mart employees. Given that the league is now charging $100 million for expansion fees, and paying past-their-prime stars like Kaka more than $7 million a season, though, the small change thrown toward the league's rank-and-file seems less like a generous increase and more like table scraps.
The league’s answer to all of this – that things are still tenuous for the league, and that centralized control is still necessary to ensure MLS’s success – does have a certain amount of merit. After all, Chivas USA folded at the end of last season, a fate that hasn’t befallen a franchise in any other North American pro sport for more than 30 years. The league also faces stiff competition from not only other, more traditional North American sports, but from other soccer leagues around the world; MLS trails Liga MX in popularity in America, mostly due to the Mexican diaspora, and arguably remains behind the Premier League and other European powerhouse teams in popularity, as well.
That said, though, this doesn’t make the new CBA any better for the players. And given that the owners didn’t give up much in the negotiation, it’s fair to say that labor is the loser in all of this.
The clear winners, however, are North American soccer fans, who narrowly avoided seeing a work stoppage at a time when soccer’s popularity is exploding. After watching every other North American sport shoot itself in the foot with work-stoppage issues, they have to be thrilled that this weekend’s coverage will be more about returning US national team stars and the debut of clubs in Orlando and New York City, rather than more talk about darkened stadiums.
The season kicks of Friday night. The players aren’t happy – seven teams reportedly voted against the deal – and the owners still fear for the future of the league. But at least the season will start on time.