It's official: There will be an MLS season as planned in 2021.
The league and its players union ratified the agreement they reached on Friday night, paving the way to avoid the first work stoppage in league history. The new collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2027 season, which is what MLS had proposed in exchange for guaranteeing no pay cuts this year after players were subjected to them as a result of the pandemic's impact on league finances.
The season's fate was up in the air after MLS invoked a force majeure clause, citing those financial losses due to the pandemic and those the league expected to incur in 2021. The original CBA was due to run through the 2025 season, and the league wanted a two-year extension in which it could offset long-term losses and recoup over $100 million. By extension that would prevent the players association from securing a bigger piece of the pie that's expected to be available ahead of the 2026 World Cup being hosted in North America. The league threatened to lock the players out if no agreement was reached, twice extending its deadline before coming to terms on a deal Friday.
In addition to the two-year extension and the 100% salary figure for 2021, the players secured another step forward in the fight for free agency. Starting in 2026, all players 24 or older with four years of service time will be eligible. Under the old terms, it was 24 or older with five years of service time.
"The MLS Players Association would like to thank our Executive Board and Bargaining Committee who worked tirelessly over the last six weeks to represent and protect the interests of their teammates," said the MLSPA, which had fellow unions across other sports and MLS supporters groups issue statements on its behalf. "MLS players have made incredible sacrifices and overcome considerable challenges in the past year to continue doing their jobs during a difficult time for all of us. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our player leadership for continuing to guide us during these unprecedented times."
While roster spending will largely be stagnant for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, it will grow gradually between 2023 and 2027. Between the salary budget and two Targeted Allocation Money mechanisms (general and discretionary), the figure teams can spend will grow from $9.2 million to $13 million between now and the end of this CBA. (Note: money spent above the budget charge on Designated Players does not count against that figure.)
The maximum a player can make and not be on a DP deal will grow from $612,500 to $883,438 over the course of the deal, while minimum salaries for senior roster players will grow from $81,375 to $125,875. Teams will still have three allotted DP spots. Barring another force-majeure–triggering incident (and based on the language the two sides have agreed to on that front), this should be the last labor negotiation until after the league's 32nd season following three in the past year.
“We have enormous respect and appreciation for everything the players have done helping build the league and the sport throughout the years, and they've gone above and beyond during the pandemic,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “We thank the MLSPA leadership and the players for their thoughtful and collaborative approach on the new CBA. We worked together to address the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the league, and we appreciate the players’ efforts to develop a CBA that deals with the uncertainty of the pandemic while also providing stability during the next seven years to enable further growth. We look forward to seeing the players on the training field in a few weeks as they begin preparations for the upcoming season."
The 2021 preseason was supposed to start Feb. 22, ahead of an opening weekend over April 3–4, but those dates are subject to being pushed back a bit, according to multiple reports. Whether fans are able to attend matches will likely continue to depend on local guidelines until the state of the pandemic has changed—though the MLSPA is projecting optimism on that front.
"We now move on to a 2021 season that we hope can reunite supporters and players in stadiums all across North America to enjoy and advance the game we all love," it wrote.
The 2021 season will feature the addition of a 27th team, Austin FC, while FC Cincinnati and the reigning MLS Cup winner, Columbus Crew SC, will both be moving into new soccer-specific stadiums.