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MLS experiences growing pains

Kids grow up so fast, don't they? One day we're picking up their little toys, the next we're picking up the tab for their college.

It's the same with Major League Soccer. It's growing up fast, now into the wonder years. There's still plenty of room to grow for the 16-year-old operation, but evidence keeps breaking that MLS is maturing fast -- which has its good and bad points. Progress comes at a price, after all.

List these under "growing pains": increased threat of contract holdouts (what's the latest on Toronto's Dwayne De Rosario, anyway?); higher stakes on TV contracts; labor instability; and more talk of "contract years" for players. These are just some of the reminders that steady growth goes hand in hand with the imperfections long familiar to other, higher-profile American sports.

This De Rosario business, unpleasant as it has been, is a good example. We haven't seen many contract holdouts in MLS, but more may be inevitable.

De Rosario isn't holding out, exactly, but he won't commit to playing under current contract terms. The high-maintenance goal scorer is with Toronto FC in Europe, but he is not a happy camper. Not that he ever has been; De Rosario always seems to have his hand out for more, which is the kind of attitude we see more frequently in NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. His short, cryptic responses during a press gathering last week said it all.

"It's not what I want," said De Rosario, who makes about $450,000 annually in total compensation. "It's what I think I deserve."

A complicating factor here is the salary of a less productive teammate, Julian de Guzman, who earns about $1.7 million. We know how much he makes because MLS salaries have become more public through the years, which is yet another sign of maturity in league matters.

(Ironically, the club renegotiated De Rosario's deal in late 2008, increasing the salary and adding two more years. Had he played those last two years on the previous deal, De Rosario would be a free agent today, holding all the cards. But that's all for TFC and its captain to sort out.)

Speaking of salary drives, here's a term that goes hand in hand when talking about the athletes in better established U.S. sports: the so-called contract year. It's not something discussed as often in MLS, although that might be changing.

A year ago, there was buzz of a huge year ahead for Robbie Findley (now with England's Nottingham Forest). The Real Salt Lake striker had World Cup visions in addition to professional aspirations. A whisper around the league was about Findley's contract year, the final year of his deal in Salt Lake. The athlete who can deliver in a contract year stands to cash in on the next agreement. Cynical as it may be, media and fans see the contract year as major incentive in other sports.

So this year you might hear more chatter, for instance, about De Guzman, who enters the final year of his three-year agreement in Toronto. At 29, the TFC midfielder could still land another big-money deal -- assuming he can run the show for new coach Aron Winter in this, his contract year.

(In MLS, "contract year" carries the extra weight of European possibilities. See Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, who parlayed them into moves abroad.)

Here's another downside to being a slightly bigger fish in the American sports pond: increased exposure. Every little player foible and fumble has a better chance of being a headline rather than a footnote. Shalrie Joseph was a no-show at New England's first practice last week. It didn't turn out to be such a big deal. But it temporarily raised red flags, as Joseph has had issues in the past, personal and professional.

The point is, in some markets in the past, a player could be a first-day no-show and the public may have never known.

The league-level growing pains are showing, too, starting with a schedule that's been difficult to deliver.

MLS has yet to announce each team's full 34-game schedule for 2011, although the first kick has been set for March 15. That's just six weeks away. Why wouldn't the league have its calendar set less than six weeks out? You can bet the ongoing TV contract talks have a lot to do with it.

"Assembling the schedule begins after MLS Cup and involves several interdependent factors including competitive fairness, international competitions, stadium availability, broadcast windows and club preferences," the league said last week in a statement. "We recognize that the timing of [the schedule's] release has caused some inconvenience and we appreciate our fans' continued patience."

But all those other obstacles have always been in play. Last year MLS announced its schedule on Feb. 3, seven weeks before the league opener (which fell later in the calendar than this year). If schedule makers unveil their 2011 work on Feb. 10 as officials have promised, that would put it four and a half weeks before first kick (L.A. Galaxy at Seattle Sounders). It's about TV, the beast that presides over the professional sports kingdom, as we all know. MLS contracts with ESPN and Univision run through 2014, but the league currently has no current agreement with Fox Soccer Channel. Versus could become the other TV partner if a new agreement with FSC cannot be reached.

All of this is set against an unattractive backdrop of last year's labor discord. A player strike never seemed imminent, but the threat was a dark bit of business a year ago, requiring media to follow the ongoing collective bargaining process -- the same kind of labor unrest that has bruised other leagues and may soon force an NFL lockout.

None of this is to say that the price of progress isn't worth it. Nailing down new stadium opening dates is always elusive, and that complicates scheduling, too. Sporting Kansas City's new facility opens later this year and, in the long run, these dedicated stadiums mean everything to MLS stability.

And the TV deal is also proving tricky because the overall value has grown substantially. Expansion sides in Portland and Vancouver this year promise to add energy and new audiences the way Seattle and Toronto did. So the calculus of it all is more complicated today. In the end, the league wins -- even if arriving at the finish line proves a tougher go.

"I just think the people at MLS are smart, and the players are smart, and they'll get it all figured out," Portland Timbers coach John Spencer said over the weekend from California, where his team is holding preseason practices. "When the time comes, they'll have it all worked out and they'll tell us who we'll be playing, then we'll start getting ready for them."

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