When news broke about the new MLS collective bargaining agreement (CBA), many fans and players were disappointed that the salary cap wasn't increased significantly; they were equally disappointed at the paltry version of free agency proposed by the CBA.
However, the needle might be moving more rapidly among MLS ownership now.
A source privy to the CBA negotiations in Washington, DC told me about the "fascinating chasm" between different camps of MLS owners during the negotiations. My source informed me that some of the newer owners were pushing for a higher cap, and more team autonomy when it came to player signings, as well as free agency.
According to him, the LA Galaxy, Seattle, Toronto, and New York City were leading this effort; the Red Bulls, Sporting KC, and Orlando were also involved. This effort would surely improve the on-field product, draw greater fan interest -- and ultimately make MLS much more competitive with top-rank soccer leagues around the world.
Owners are less unified than players, say some sources Definitely conflicting philosophies about free agency and spending. #MLSCBA— Brooke Tunstall (@YesThatBrooke) March 4, 2015
Opposing these efforts were MLS' old guard: Robert Kraft (owner of the New England Revolution), Clark Hunt (owner of FC Dallas), and Philadelphia's ownership group -- according to my source, "the usual suspects". That makes ESPN's Jeff Carlisle's report --that "the number of owners at the table was intentionally limited, and helped them maintain a united front" -- make even more sense.
As it turned out, two of the three owners at the table were Kraft and Hunt -- the other being Vancouver’s Greg Kerfoot. The three owners were joined by some LA Galaxy brass, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott. My source explained that these owners carried the day against the newer, bolder owners. Kraft more or less argued, "We lost way too much money in the early years and aren’t ready to lose more."
Although they differ with the conservative bloc, more progressively-minded MLS owners have a lot of respect for the likes of the Krafts and the Hunts for incurring the heavy financial losses they did in the early days of MLS to start the league and keep it from collapsing. As a result, they are generally deferred to, but for how long? Will newer, big-spending owners like New York City's make a bigger push for change in the next CBA in 5 years?
According to my source, New York City's ownership were surprised by the reluctance of other owners to spend more and allow a more generous version of free agency in the new CBA. They prodded Garber to get more concessions from the conservative owners' bloc. Reportedly, the players' union were aware of New York City's efforts -- and counted on them to push for wider reform -- but the conservative owners carried the day.
As it turned out, both New York City and Orlando pressured Garber to not force a strike over what they considered "small gaps". If negotiations were close, and players reps weren't budging, then both expansion teams were adamant that MLS should concede because the difference -- to them -- wasn't worth risking the start of the season, especially with both teams selling out their inaugural home matches.
Also hearing that @MLS is getting MAJOR push back from @OrlandoCitySC and @NYCFC to get a deal done. #MLSCBA— Brooke Tunstall (@YesThatBrooke) March 4, 2015
In the end, my source explained, the players' reps agreed to the new CBA because not all of them wanted to strike. "If the players had been more unified and willing to strike," he mused, "it would've been fascinating to see the dynamics with New York City emerge."
I asked him to elaborate. "I think if the players stayed unified, they could have gotten the owners to split," he said. "There’s a fascinating dynamic because there really are different camps within MLS owners."
Here's where things get interesting. MLS will need the kind of financial power that City Football Group and like-minded owners bring -- as well as their prodding -- if the league wants to keep its hegemony in the domestic soccer scene. The upstart NASL is posturing ambitiously, and aims to get Division I sanctioning from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
The NASL -- with the New York Cosmos as their flagship team -- remains an outside threat to MLS, since the league has no salary cap restrictions and has complete free agency, both of which are clearly much more attractive to players, though perhaps not to most conservative owners.
If -- and that remains a massive if -- the going gets tough, and the NASL starts spending the kind of money needed to at least appear a rival to MLS, if not a bigger league than MLS, then MLS will need to respond. It seems that City Football Group are poised to respond. But are other owners?
Many MLS fans -- and members of the media -- question whether it was wise for MLS to award New York City FC to City Football Group and the New York Yankees. Those questions persist. It would certainly be ironic, though, if City Football Group became instrumental in sharply moving the needle on MLS spending and free agency, given how badly the majority of MLS fans want the league to compete with the best leagues in the world.