The Major League Soccer season kicks off March 6 - well, that's what the schedule says, at any rate. At the moment, it seems far more likely that some sort of work stoppage, whether player's striker or owner's lockout, will force a postponement or cancellation of opening day. The league's collective bargaining agreement with the player's union expired on January 31, and at the moment, the sides seem much too far apart to reach an agreement before taking the field in March.
The main sticking point in the negotiations is the league's free-agent policy, which is remarkably backwards for this day and age. Even after a veteran player's contract is up, said player can't choose which MLS team he's going to play for; instead, he has to go through the league's "re-entry" draft. For those who know the whole history of American sports and the reserve clause and Curt Flood, it's all very old-school; even with this re-entry draft, Major League Soccer is effectively nearly fifty years behind the times.
If you know about Flood, you know that baseball fought free agency, lost, and then later was slapped down in the 1980s for collusion among the owners to reduce the price of free agents. Yet MLS is able to do effectively the same thing, because of the league's curious structure. Technically, every MLS team is owned by the league and each MLS player signs a contract with the league instead of with a team, a setup that has come to be known as "single entity." In 2002, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the league, as a quasi-single entity, technically could not conspire with itself and so was able to take collective action with regard to players.
The court, though, deliberately remained vague about whether MLS actually was a true single entity. And since the decision 13 years ago, the league has increasingly started to look like an NFL-style collection of "distinct economic actors," as they were called by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling in the American Needle vs. NFL case. Teams have begun signing their own Designated Players, a rule introduced in 2007 to allow teams to sign star players to larger contracts - and compete independently for their services, just as any other team would. Read the Toronto Sun's account of Toronto FC capturing Italian international Sebastian Giovinco - it certainly makes Toronto owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment sound a lot more like a distinct economic actor, not part of a single entity.
The battle for free agency isn't really about free agency, then. At its heart is really a battle over the single entity. To grant the players free agency would be to set the teams up to compete over not only superstar players but over MLS veterans, and would call into question every one of MLS's confusing structures - like the allocation order, a priority ranking for deciding which team returning US Men's National Team players will sign with, or the "discovery claims" process, an absurd mechanism in which teams can submit secret claims on potential MLS players that they might want to sign, or at least call dibs on.
The players, for their part, appear to have had enough of the current system. Before 2010, they didn't even have the small consolation of the re-entry draft - they had to re-sign or leave the league for other pastures. It's worth noting, too, that the sums being offered for any players are still remarkably small - the league's salary cap was $3.1 million last year, and though that doesn't include Designated Players or a few other minor categories, most teams still are paying their entire squad about the average salary of one major-league baseball player. MLS has just signed a new television contract; it just gave the now-defunct Chivas USA franchise to a group of investors for a $100 million pseudo-expansion fee; and its teams are increasingly spending huge amounts of money to build stadiums. Is it any wonder that the players aren't buying the league's claims of financial difficulty, and are ready to demand a fairer slice of the ever-expanding pie?
For their part, the teams still fear the failure of the league above all else. Chivas USA's folding, at the end of last year, was a sign that even after twenty years, and despite rampant expansion, all is not right with MLS. The offseason has seen a number of league-wide embarrassments, not least the signs that NYC FC - yet to even begin play at Yankee Stadium - appeared to be nothing but a farm team for Manchester City, a distinctive echo of the problems that plagued Chivas on the opposite coast.
All reports indicate that the sides are so far apart on the question of free agency that they're not even bothering to talk about it. The players say they won't play without it. The league dismisses the mere idea as completely out of the question. It's hard to see how this gets worked out. Last time, the sides needed the help of a mediator, and even with that help, we were within a week of opening day before a deal was signed. This time, it looks like that deadline will come and go before anything is decided.