On Monday, as representatives from MLS, the players union and the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service were negotiating in Washington, D.C., Orlando City announced that its home opener was sold out.
That game, the Lions’ first since ascending from USL, is scheduled for Sunday against fellow expansion team New York City FC in front of some 60,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl. It’s supposed to be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. Kaká and David Villa are among the luminaries expected to appear.
It’s an event not to be missed. Yet on Tuesday afternoon, it hung in the balance. Without a new collective bargaining agreement (the previous one expired at the end of January), the MLS season almost surely won’t kick off on time. And without bilateral compromise, it doesn’t appear there’s going to be a CBA.
There’s been little indication over the past couple of weeks that the league and union have found common ground on the issue that’s likely to scuttle the start of the season–free agency. Sources with knowledge of the negotiations have been consistent in their assessment that the league, whose bargaining team is led by president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, has shown little interest in budging on the issue.
On Tuesday, the final day of scheduled negotiation in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post cited an unnamed source who claimed the league had offered free agency only to players aged 32 who’d been with the same club for 10 years. That would apply to zero players this season and perhaps only one–Houston Dynamo captain Brad Davis–in 2016. Later, ESPN reported that the league improved its offer to cover players 28 years or older with at least eight years of service, regardless of team.
The Post's source said that MLS officials and owners are “running [the] league into [a] ditch.”
What they’re doing, in fact, is calling the union’s bluff. Player after player has promised that free agency is worth striking over. Whether they can maintain their resolve during a potential work stoppage remains the question. Strikes are costly–especially so to a pool of players including so many earning under $100,000 annually. Some external financial support may be required if the union is to stick it out.
Publicly, the players are undeterred.
“Free agency has to be in this deal for the players to play on opening day. I think that’s the bottom line,” MLSPU executive board member Todd Dunivant told SI.com recently.
The MLS season is supposed to begin Friday, when the Chicago Fire visit the champion LA Galaxy. The Fire are scheduled to fly around lunchtime Wednesday. Absent a resolution Tuesday night, MLSPU membership likely will have to decide by mid-morning Wednesday whether to strike. Players from around the league have been gathering in D.C. this week in order to streamline the process.
The Montreal Impact (Tuesday) and D.C. United (Wednesday) are scheduled to host their respective decisive CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second legs this week. It's unclear whether D.C. players would show up at RFK Stadium if the union votes to strike.
But a bit of hope remains. Reports that the league has offered limited free agency, even if it's only for Davis, are interesting because they represent a tiny bit of movement where there’d been none previously. Free agency has been a Pandora’s Box that MLS hadn't been interested in opening. Cost control was critical (the league still loses millions) and allowing owners to bid against each other for the same player, thereby boosting his salary, wasn’t something they were willing to consider.
“Because we function in an international market and the clubs that we are competing against for players are not subject to our salary budget, to have free agency within the league doesn’t provide us with the certainty that the union says it does,” Abbott told SI.com in December. “In another [North American] league, if you lose a player from Washington, they go to Boston. They don’t go to London. When the union says they can offer cost certainty under free agency, it’s not true because we have to compete against clubs all throughout the world.”
While the union has countered that cost certainty can be maintained under the league’s salary budget, those protests miss the point. Sources familiar with the league’s position contend that MLS sees every extra dollar spent on a player already in its employ as a dollar that can’t go elsewhere, whether its toward designated players or youth development.
If a six-year MLS veteran uses leverage gained through free agency to increase his salary by $30,000, say because a given club has a greater need for a player at his position, then that’s $30,000 that can’t be spent on a different player or on growing the league. And make no mistake–MLS doesn’t regard rank-and-file players as drivers of growth.
“We invest every year more than we did the year before and there’s no doubt we will be investing more. The discussion is how much more and in what ways,” Abbott said. “We’ve never said this is about reducing our investment or lowering our costs. It’s about what’s the prudent amount of investment to make … some of it doesn’t show up in salaries.”
The union, naturally, believes proven talent should be rewarded before funds are gambled on newcomers who haven’t demonstrated a commitment to, or comfort with, MLS. The MLSPU also argues that free agency is about something other than money, and that something isn’t an effort to destroy the league’s unique single-entity business structure.
“No part of what we’re proposing has to do with us dictating how they structure their business. It doesn’t need to change to get what we’re after … Free agency can work within the single entity, no question about it.” MLSPU executive director Bob Foose told SI.com. “It is a core principle of our union and every other soccer union in the world that players, and all workers for that matter, should have the right to choose where they live and work.”
To that end, the union has proposed free agency rules similar to the ones present in the other major North American sports, where age and years of service factor into a player’s qualification. Details of its proposals haven’t been made public. The union has argued that free agency hasn’t hurt the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB or European soccer. In fact, it claims, those sports have grown since adopting it.
But it’s worth noting that no league, including those in Europe, yielded free agency at the bargaining table. Athletes opened the door through litigation.
MLS players lost the first time they went to court. The 2002 Fraser v. Major League Soccer decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals left the league’s single-entity intact and didn’t leave a whole lot of room available for a second case.
Litigation would take time and money the players likely don’t have (the MLSPU had assets of $4.5 million at the end of 2013, according to federal filings), and MLS probably still could successfully argue that it lacks the power to restrict the relevant market, a prerequisite for antitrust liability. Soccer is a global game.
So, MLS doesn’t fear the courts. It fears rising costs, and feels the best way to keep them down is to maintain centralized control. A lack of free agency limits the chance an owner might go rogue and disrupt the league’s salary structure. Most owners, if not all, still believe MLS is as strong as its weakest link. It’s the system they bought into, and they have no incentive to change it. Free agency may enrich players, as one source put it, but it adds no value to the league as a whole. A lack of free agency gives the league more say in how its money is spent.
What if players could acquire more freedom without costing more? If free agency really is as much a quality of life issue for the players as an economic one, and if the league is more concerned with controlling costs than with maintaining a single-entity façade, there are models and mechanisms in place that might suffice. It would require concession, creativity and compromise, but where the re-entry draft saved the day in 2010, a similar construct could work this time.
One such example is a Dutch auction, in which the price is lowered, rather than raised, until a bid is accepted. The ceiling on an out-of-contract player’s potential salary would be maintained, as it is in the re-entry draft. However, that player would have some influence over where he wound up through his ability to name the price at which he’d be willing to join different clubs. He might be willing to play for Sporting Kansas City for $180,000, but he’d be happy to go home to Houston and join the Dynamo for $160,000.
There’s no indication that such a mechanism has been proposed, but it is an example of the sort of temporary common ground that might be discovered if both sides are willing to look. If the Fire are going to board their flight on Wednesday, and if Orlando is to enjoy its big day, that ground will have to be found soon.
Critiquing every MLS uniform, head to toe
New York City FC
New York City FC took some heat for its sky blue home shirt, which looks a whole lot like the one worn by parent/sister club Manchester City. But an homage was inevitable, and NYCFC has differentiated itself from MCFC, and the rest of MLS, with the white shorts and socks. It’s a sharp look. The away kit, highlighted by a flash of orange (from the city flag) at the neck and five stripes you can barely see that "represent the five boroughs of New York City," is lazy. With a blank template, NYCFC should’ve come up with something other than the mono-black already worn in D.C. and Columbus.
After several overhauls—LA wore black and teal, then teal and yellow, then yellow and green—the Galaxy’s white and blue brand has taken root. Three championships in four years certainly help. The sash on the home uniform, re-introduced in 2012, has quickly become iconic, and, along with the socks, helps make this all-white kit stand out. The new secondary set maintains the same feel as its recent predecessors. The yellow accents look sharp, but we can’t help but feel a white or yellow sash would tie the uniforms and brand together.
Of the four MLS teams with an all-red home uniform (that’s 20 percent of the league), the Fire were first. They’re the “Men in Red,” after all. But Chicago began veering away from its traditional look in 2012. First the famous white hoop became blue. Then last year, the blue expanded to the chest and shoulders. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t seem right, either. The new away kit is another all-white offering. But at least designers put a bit of thought into this one. The thin, light blue hoops on the shirt and socks, intended to reflect the design of the city flag, are a nice touch.
Montreal exemplifies MLS/Adidas’ fixation on tiny details rather than the impact (sorry) a uniform makes when viewed from more than three feet away, which is where most people watch a game. The new away kit features a tiny silver fleur-de-lis affixed to the back and more woven subtly into the fabric. But overall, it’s just another anonymous all-white uniform that mirrors the existing, plain blue primary set. The tragedy is that Montreal’s gorgeous blue-and-black striped alternate, which would be the only striped kit in MLS, is gathering dust. It should be the club’s primary.
D.C. United calls itself the “Black and Red,” but its uniform palette typically has ignored the latter. That’s been rectified with the club’s new secondary kit, which features a welcome splash of red on the traditional white jersey. The home uniform, which carries over from 2014, still looks unfinished without the white chest stripes that were dropped in 2008. If D.C. could find a way to re-introduce them, perhaps above the sponsor logo and behind the crest, it once again would boast one of the sport’s most distinctive designs.
Real Salt Lake
RSL stubbornly refuses to look great. It took a small step forward with its new secondary uniform, which now features two blue sleeves. It's too bad there isn’t even more of RSL’s beautiful claret, cobalt, and gold color scheme in the kit. The red home set carries over from 2014, making it six seasons since RSL abandoned the claret shirt, cobalt shorts/socks combo it wore when winning its only MLS title. The yellow chest stripe adds a little something extra, but RSL’s preference for an all-red kit similar to others around the league instead of a classy, one-of-a-kind look with championship pedigree is baffling.
Toronto FC’s new home set could be the reddest uniform in the history of a league that loves red uniforms, which we suppose is noteworthy (guess Adidas insisted on the contrasting three stripes). Club management has focused on building a team capable of ending an eight-year playoff drought, likely leaving little time for kit design. The holdover secondary set is charcoal gray, which features in the TFC logo and is a unique uniform color in MLS. The hooped socks finish off a striking look and make us wish there was a bit more gray in the primary.
New England Revolution
The Revs are Exhibit A for the effect a second color, even if it comes from something as mundane as a plain pair of shorts, has on a club’s brand. Long a believer in boring, N.E. last year overhauled its home blues with white shorts and hooped socks. It’s a classy yet instantly recognizable look. The image shake-up continued Tuesday with a new secondary kit inspired by the regional flag flown during the American Revolution. The red-and-white set is clunky and geometric, but it’s different, daring and local. Better to take a chance than look dull and anonymous.
The Union got it right in 2010. The inaugural navy kit with the gold center stripe, reflecting the Philadelphia flag, was iconic. The gold-and-blue away set, a reversal of the primary, was one-of-a-kind. The holdover home uniform still looks great, although the sponsor’s logo wrecks the balance. But the new secondary is a disaster, a needless departure from the brand and an 10th all-white MLS kit. Once innovators, the Union are now followers. The “WE ARE ONE” collar slogan, the tiny snake below the neckline and the embossed stars on the front are lost in a sea of white.
The Vancouver Whitecaps new primary uniform is meant to be experienced up close. It’s slogan heavy. “Our All. Our Honour.” appears inside the neck and on the hip. “SINCE 1974” is on the back. The thin, diagonal pinstripes that featured on the previous home kit have been replaced by light blue shading designed to represent Vancouver’s water and mountains. It’s all a bit too subtle. The shirt will look nice with jeans, but in the end, Vancouver’s all-white kit—and the holdover mono-navy secondary—simply blends in.
Portland quietly switched crests, from a logo featuring its name to a simpler version focusing on the axe and chevrons (the old logo lives on elsewhere). Few teams wear a badge with no writing, but the Timbers can because they’ve built such a powerful brand. Only they could wear the new home set, a bold green-and-white offering anchored by the chevrons. They're a bit wide, and the yellow below the collar clutters the shirt, but it's impressive overall. The road kit, released in 2014, is everything a good one should be: distinctive, perhaps edgy, yet connected to the club. In this case, Rose City red.
The Crew released new home and away sets featuring the club’s revamped logo, a roundel that looks nice enough but makes sense only with a cheat sheet. The explanations (the ‘O’ for Ohio, the founding year, the checkerboard pattern found in flags waived by fans) certainly tie the club to Columbus more than the goofy construction workers did. As the Crew forge ahead, they’ll stay true to their sartorial tradition. The all-yellow primary is simple but elegant, and certainly recognizable. The mono black secondary could use a bit of flourish–why so subtle with the checkers? But it works and shouldn't be needed that often, anyway.
Orlando City SC
The Lions’ love for purple is welcome in a league featuring so many similar looks. But it didn't result in creative inaugural kits. The home uniform features more up-close details, like “jacquard engineered banding…representing Orlando City’s transition to a new era” and even the club's old USL logo inside. The mono-white secondary has colored hoops on the waist and sleeves and includes more small symbols and slogans. But it’s still just another white set. The answer is obvious—swap the socks. The “Chelsea” look is underrated. White hosiery at home and purple on the road would make all the difference.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls have company in New York so have set out to reinforce their tenuous connection to the market within the constraints of the club’s corporate brand. The only white-red-white team in the league, RBNY now must compete with NYCFC’s pale blue. The Red Bulls’ new home set doubles down on that contrast with red sleeves and “NEW YORK” emblazoned on the shirt’s lower left in a manner “mimicking the iconic New York skyline.” The “EST.1996” on the back collar reminds fans who was there (or nearby) first. The holdover secondary definitely is unique and is great in reasonable doses.
Houston’s club motto is “Forever Orange,” and while that remains the cornerstone of the brand, the Dynamo typically add a wrinkle here and there to ensure we’re not beaten over the head with it. The new home uniform is a great example. The white shorts and checkered fade on the jersey add the right amount of contrast. On occasion, the Dynamo have worn monochrome both home and away. But there’s no need to do so, especially on the road. The balance in the primary kit and the immediately identifiable orange shorts with the secondary set showcase the Dynamo at their best.
Sporting Kansas City
From irrelevant to trendsetting, SKC has profited from one of the most successful sports rebrands in recent history. The club now must share light blue with NYCFC, but Sporting still stands out. The new home set is a departure form the bicolor “state line” uniform of 2013-14 and is anchored by a “fashion-forward window pane pattern” that’s almost as preppy as the recent argyle alternate kit. The secondary uniform is stunning. The hoops, which mirror the stripes on the club crest, highlight one of the most eye-catching sets in MLS history. It’ll be tough to see it go after this season.
FCD’s kits are an example of a good idea, poorly executed. The club made an inspired decision to go with hoops when rebranding in 2005, but the jerseys always let them down. Unnecessary seams, plackets and panels always ruined the shirt. Dallas gave up last year and went with a boring all-red primary. But it stuck with the hoops on the new blue-and-white secondary, where the side panels and sleeves still disrupt the flow. Both blue and white shorts are an option. Our 2016 ideal: a primary jersey with seamless, sleek red and blue hoops. Unique and colorful, but less jarring. Make it happen.
Another club that’s bounced from brand to brand (green-and-white, blue-and-black), the Rapids have settled in nicely with the unique but elegant burgundy-shirt, white-shorts combo. The sleeves, which mirror those worn by sister club Arsenal, add a subtle touch of flair. The new away uniform is a prime example of how a secondary kit can be tasteful and connect to a club’s brand. Last season’s mono blue state-flag set has evolved into a sharp gold-and-blue kit that maintains Colorado's colors and stands out from the crowd. We’re not fans of recolored badges—logos should be sacrosanct—but overall it’s a winner.
The club that brought us rave green, cascade shale, super cyan and electricity has succumbed to the all-white virus. Seattle is one of five MLS clubs to adopt the look this season, ensuring half the league now embraces the white-out copout. The Sounders new away kit is especially devoid of any personality—a surprising choice for a club that has much of it. The new home set features a less cluttered shirt than in seasons past. It’s a template, but it’s a step up. The uniform also features blue shorts and socks for the first time. Here’s hoping we see it as often as possible.
San Jose Earthquakes
"Earthquakes" is an appropriate moniker for a club that’s experienced so much upheaval. While the new Avaya Stadium offers stability, the brand remains in flux. SJ’s '14 overhaul produced a beautiful blue-and-black primary kit that’s already a modern classic. But the logo, awkwardly anchored by “Quakes”—a nickname of a nickname—lacks gravitas. We liked the re-introduction of the NASL-era red, which inspired last year’s away kit. That’s been replaced by a new white secondary set (yes, another one). It lacks the creativity, individuality and ambition that should be associated with a Bay Area club on the rise.