How much damage would players' strike have on the growing MLS?

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Being a soccer fan in this country was never easy. Supporters and advocates have always put up with a lot.

Their sport was a punch line on so many media platforms through the years. Until recently, watching matches was a crapshoot, a scavenger hunt of cable systems, pay-per-view options and supporters' bars.

Even when Major League Soccer provided a top-tier professional association domestic fans could call their own, the national footprint was thin and clubs fumbled frequently in customer service as they found their footing.

Now, just as their days of being marginalized seem mercifully past, will loyal MLS supporters be asked to put up with a players' strike? Such a notion falls squarely into the province of "You can't be serious?"

MLS is less than two weeks from beginning what looks like a fantastic campaign, with 16 teams filling out the largest field to date. Wrapped into the package is a spectacular new arena in the nation's largest media market, New York. Expansion Philadelphia seems set to join Seattle and Toronto on the fast track to big-time soccer city status. It will all play out against the backdrop of a World Cup, which always reinforces interest among casual sports fans.

It all begins in less than two weeks, that is, unless a strike scythes down the momentum. Frustrated members of the players' union have set a March 23 deadline. Without a new collective bargaining agreement in place at 12:01 a.m., two days before Philadelphia and Seattle are set to meet in the 2010 league opener, the players apparently will walk.

Last Thursday, the union announced that players had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Until late last week, chances that ongoing labor discord would deteriorate into an actual work stoppage seemed like so much distant danger, like damage to your home from heavy storms. But as some residents along the battered East Coast know all too well, the bad moment occasionally does come, and with a sure menace.

The big picture here is a house of mirrors; it's hard to know what's real and amounts to distorting misdirection. At some risk of over simplification, the discord essentially reduces down to this: The sides have reached tenuous accord on minor matters but are stuck over movement toward player free agency.

The players' union covets it. The owners carefully crafted the entire single-entity structure in order to avoid it. The broken-down heaps of leagues past served as useful reminders of what movement toward free agency hath wrought. Besides, new owners recently have bought into the league, paying $30 and $40 million franchise fees, feeling safely shielded from anything that resembled an escalating salary arms race.

The current deal expired on Jan. 31. The two sides, still appearing chummy at the time, agreed to extend the current agreement to Feb. 12. Snowy weather snuffed out some of the negotiating sessions, so the deadline was pushed back another 13 days to Feb. 25. Since then ... well, at least we have been spared any more fake deadlines.

Some hope was detected when federal mediator George H. Cohen joined last week's talks. He remains in Washington, where negotiating sessions began again Monday.

Principals on both sides have managed to play nice and keep negotiations secret until last week. Mounting pressure initiated a small-arms-fire level of serve-and-volley rhetoric. Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller and Toronto defender Nick Garcia are among the players who have spoken publicly, eliciting a response from MLS president Mark Abbott.

Abbott expressed disappointment last week that an agreement between parties to avoid public discussion had been breached. "As such, we were disappointed to see comments from a number of players characterizing the status of the negotiations and the possibility of a strike," he said. "The players' comments do not accurately reflect the proposals that we have made to address the players' concerns or the productive nature of the discussions between MLS and the union."

Union executive director Bob Foose responded with his own public statement. "Recent comments from players simply reflect the fact that the players are unified and, per the results of our strike vote, will not begin the new season if a new agreement with the league is not reached," Foose said, clarifying that his union had not shifted its position and that not much had changed.

At any rate, most fans probably don't care about how the sausage is made here. They probably know more than they ever wanted to know about guaranteed contracts, unilateral contract options and the range of free agency potentially available for out-of-contract players.

"This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they're trying to live out the dream," Keller told The Associated Press last Friday.

He may be right, but it may not matter. In the chill of national recession, the public may not be in the mood to hear about dreams -- particularly not the 10 percent of population currently unemployed. Paying bills is the here-and-now. Chasing dreams is a luxury that's off the table for many Americans today.

MLS player income averaged $147,945 to begin last season, according to the union, a figure skewed by the group's high earners. The median number is probably more representative; the point at which an equal number make above and below was $88,000. Consider that median annual U.S. family income hovers just north of $50,000, according to Census Bureau statistics (which also show alarming trends in the decline of that amount).

And therein dwells the real danger. Soccer in the United States is here to stay. It's not going anywhere. Professional soccer, however, is but one branch on the tree. Branches can and do break.

Who could truly judge the damage ahead in the event of a strike? How strong can the league truly be after 14 sometimes troubled seasons? Seattle was an amazing story last year, establishing an MLS season record for average attendance. But for all the fever-pitch greatness of the Seattle story there is a Colorado, a Kansas City and a Dallas.

Those are the low-wage earners of league attendance and, probably, community impact and acceptance. New England and Red Bull New York are above them in average attendance, but still below 14,000. Columbus (following a championship year) and San Jose were just barely above that figure. How much damage can the weaker teams sustain?

What about that historic March 27 date at Red Bull Arena? This new $200 million baby is exactly what the bungling franchise needed to create a fresh start, to begin the process of kissing and making up with fans, a scorned lot with abundant cause to dismiss the MLS brand over 14 seasons. This is hardly a way to begin a new relationship.

Remember, too, that professional soccer is unique here for this reason: Thanks to global TV and Internet options, it's easy for fans to sate their hunger for pro soccer.

A players strike inflicted tremendous damage on the NHL a few years ago -- and the NHL represents the globe's top hockey brand. MLS can hardly make such a claim.