Dark clouds over new Major League Soccer season as players threaten to strike
MLS exercise excessive control over where employees go and how much they earn
Brazilian Kaka who earns $7.1 million at Orlando City while some team-mates receive just $700 a week on contracts which can be waived without compensation at a certain point in the season. Photo: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty
Orlando City, featuring Kaka at one end and Sean St Ledger at the other, have filled more than 60,000 seats for its first-ever Major League Soccer game against fellow debutants New York City FC at the Citrus Bowl this Sunday.
Boasting a headliner of some stature in David Villa, their opponents, at a venue where John Aldridge once waged war with the fourth official, have already flogged more than 14,000 season tickets for the upcoming campaign at their own temporary home in Yankee Stadium.
Later this year, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (belatedly) will cross the Atlantic to join MLS’s growing roster of ageing international stars bringing a touch of glamour, if fading legs, to proceedings.
With average attendances of 19,000-plus making it the eighth most watched league in the world, a domestic television deal worth $720m over eight years, and Sky Sports now showing matches live across Britain and Ireland, MLS starts its 20th season tomorrow night in what appears to be rude, good health. Except it isn’t.
Instead of focusing on feel-good stories like the ebullient Owen Coyle taking over the Houston Dynamo or Robbie Keane seeking to cement his status as the league’s most successful import with a fourth consecutive title, much of the build-up has been devoted to the possibility of a players’ strike. Twenty years after Jean-Marc Bosman liberated their European counterparts, MLS pros are demanding some sort of free agency. How else to transform a ridiculously lopsided wages structure where last season 29 per cent of the total salaries paid went to just six players?
All leagues have disparities between the rich and the poor but the MLS is surely unique in that the haves and have-nots are often playing for the same side.
Imagine a seasoned veteran sharing a dressing-room with somebody whose Rolex watch cost more than he will earn for the entire season. There are legions of stories too about lesser lights often having to squabble with club officials for the most basic expenses due to them.
Meanwhile, Kaka is lauding the league as a place where, unlike his native Brazil, the wages are always deposited in the bank on time.
Another disturbing issue is the bizarre arrangement by which all players are contracted to the league rather than to a club. The moment an individual’s deal expires his name is put into a draft so the other teams can decide which one has the right to sign him. That this set-up gives the MLS excessive control over where employees go and how much they earn was epitomised by the strange case of Tim Howard. When the league didn’t think Manchester United were offering enough for his signature back in 2003, the goalkeeper had to pay cash to secure his own release.
If that type of imbalance made this week’s threat of industrial action inevitable rather than avoidable, archaic labour practices aren’t MLS’s only public relations problem. The embarrassing circumstances surrounding Lampard’s signing or non-signing for New York City FC drew serious and justified flak from fans and media. Tabloids cried “fraud” about the role of parent club Manchester City, some supporters returned their replica shirts, and, even before playing a competitive game, the fledgling operation turned into a laughing stock.
The latter point was also the thinking behind David Beckham’s ownership of a proposed club in Miami, a $100 million sweetener in the original contract he signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy all those years ago. Just 13 months after a rather presumptive press conference launching his grand plans for a new stadium, Miami Beckham United, as it is known, is in dire trouble, scuppered by a failure to research and grapple with the murky reality of urban politics in South Florida. Amid talk of relocating the enterprise to another, more amenable, city, nobody expects to see the club in the league any time soon.
The issues don’t end there either. A very vocal minority in the American soccer community are campaigning for the introduction of some sort of promotion/relegation to MLS and the creation of a national pyramid system incorporating all the professional leagues. Like any closed-shop, MLS baulks at the very idea but the evidence supporting it continues to grow. Last Sunday night, the United Soccer League’s Sacramento Republic and the NASL’s New York Cosmos (including ex- Spanish great Raul) drew over 20,000 for a pre-season friendly in California.
The game exists and thrives beyond the MLS – something those currently involved in labour negotiations would do well to remember.