MLS Player’s Union Has It Wrong

January 6, 2010 at 6:10 am | Posted in General Football | 7 Comments

There is no doubt the MLS is an exceptional league in terms of its structure.  Players are not under contract with a club, but with the league.   A salary cap stops teams from spending and aquiring players as they wish.  It is radically different than the rest of the Football world.  The MLS Players Union wants to bring the MLS into line with the rest of the football world. Landon Donovan made the following statement:

“It is difficult to understand why the owners would take this course, when all we are asking for are the same rights enjoyed by other players around the world, not just in the biggest leagues, but in leagues of all sizes,”

FIFPro also made the following statement:

FIFPro claims MLS’s single-entity structure, in which all players sign with the league rather than individual teams, violates regulations of FIFA, soccer’s governing body.  FIFPro said almost 80 per cent of MLS players don’t have guaranteed contracts, that contracts give the league multiple one-year options, that players can be transferred without their consent and that out-of-contract players lack freedom of movement.

I have big problems with these statements because the MLS operates in totally different context than most soccer leagues in the world.   In the countries where the players have the rights the MLS Players Union are seeking soccer is the number one sport.  In the US and Canada, the MLS operates in a saturated sports market where it is in danger of being smothered by Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey, all of which are  more popular than soccer.

Furthermore, the practices of leagues in most of the football world are completely wreckless.   The kind of unbridled, uncontrolled capitalism of the game in Europe has basically destroyed all leagues outside of the top four.  The Bosman ruling which gave players complete freedom of contract has had a detrimental effect on football, especially in smaller countries.  Even those in the top four are now struggling.  Italy, for instance, faces enormous problems.   The manner in which player contracts work is destroying the game in Brazil and Argentina, whose teams have basically become youth squads which prepare young players to sell on to the big four in Europe.

The European model was tried here in North America.  It was called the North American Soccer League, and it failed miserably.  Remember the once-mighty New York Cosmos. They bought star players from around the globe and paid them the moon.  Other teams tried to keep up and died in the process.  Eventually, the Cosmos had no one to play with.

The structure of the MLS has allowed the game to operate in a centrally controlled context in which teams compete on a relatively equal footing.  This is something rare in the world of football where teams have wildly different resources, even within the top four leagues in Europe.   This leads to a distinct lack of parity and a predictability which North American fans would simply not accept.

The MLS Players Union must accept the reality that if the league allowed their demands it would collapse as surely as the NASL did in 1984.   The fact is that the MLS cannot structure its league like those leagues in countries where soccer is number one.  It must keep a tight central control and protect itself.  This means that players contract rights must be strictly controlled.   If they are not, the costs will spiral out of control, teams will die, and the MLS will die with them.

While I believe the MLS must eventually liberalize in order to compete globally in the long term, now is not the time to do so. The league is not yet established enough to  adopt the European model.  It was not so long ago that the MLS had to shut down two teams in Miami and Tampa Bay.   The players must realize that they are pioneers working in a raw forest, not entrepreneurs working in an established metropolis.

The players interest lies in the survival of the MLS.  They had better take a good long look at what they are demanding and consider where it would lead.



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  1. You can maintain stability and keep a lid on costs by maintaining the salary cap. I haven’t followed the debate, but I don’t think anyone is calling to abolish the cap. The NFL could be the model to follow rather than sticking with the one that we have now, a model that severely restricts players’ freedom in order to succeed financially. I don’t think we need to follow the failures of European football, but surely there’s some middle ground.

  2. Hi, I like your site. I have to disagree with you on this issue though. I do think MLS has moved pass the phase of existance that required it to maintain the “survival mode” structure it has. I don’t think you can justify paying many players (about 30% I believe) less than a living wage ($20K for a pro-soccer player is just terribel). These guys have to take on second jobs, which detracts from their playing/training, so is it really helping or hindering MLS?

    Agree to disageee? 🙂


    • Hello Nick, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that the players should be paid more, but the contract rules must remain the same. I think that is the trade-off. I still see the league in the pioneer stage. The focus must be on building solid sustainable teams which grow through grassroots community involvement such as youth soccer programs. If this is not done, no players will be making any money at all. No doubt this is tough on the players, but the European model of complete freedom of contract has, in many ways ruined football for smaller countries and smaller teams. This is because it is all about who can pay the most. The big teams are getting bigger and the small teams are getting weaker. If you look at the list of European Cup finalists you will see teams such as Red Star Belgrade, Steau Bucharest and FC Malmo. Because of the transfer of wealth and power through absolute freedom of contract after the Bosman ruling, you will never see these names anywhere near a European final again. Any good players they have get sucked up into the big four: England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

      • But the current set-up doesn’t allow for youth teams or reserve squads. It is still a highly restrictive draft process with a single tier league system. And MLS want to keep it that way. It’s just so bizarre that the league can allow or not allow teams to sell players outside of the league, especially if the player wants to go. Ridiculous.

      • I see the MLS teams have a youth system, Colo. Rapids and RSL, well they probably are farces compared to real youth academies in Europe and South America. It wasn’t clear to me.

  3. The player can go once his contract with the MLS expires… I agree the lack of reserve and youth systems is a farce. Waiting for a player to be 22 before you can draft him from college is too late to properly develop players. The teams must get them started like fine violin players, early in life…

  4. That book “soccer in a football world” explains the MLS’s concept and strategy well. And it’s basically like whitecapsfan is saying so it makes me wonder if you read the book by Wangerin. It’s hard for me to explain to others that it is like MLS teams take from a central pool of talent. I agree with WhiteCapsFan.

    The big 4 leagues, England, Italy, Spain and Germany are also the biggest footballing nations. I know it’s easy to call the other leagues feeder leagues but I’m not all that comfortable saying that. In a way, it’s good Yugoslavs (Croats, Bosnians, Serbs) like Africans and South Americans can go to play on the “big stage” let alone from talent pools like Netherlands and France (and France is not really a straight up football/soccer nation). So, I’m not all that positive that football is destroyed in Brazil in that their best go to play in Europe by the simple fact, that Brazil has so many games and professional leagues all the same. Sure, upper and lower leagues of first Portugal which has the most Brazilians playing in Europe, then Spain and Italy and finally England probably accounts for around 500 players but you also have many playing in places like Poland, Faroe Islands, Viet Nam, everywhere imaginable. Games are often going on in Brazil all the time. Estudiantes from Argentina played Barcelona well, losing in the extra periods. Sao Paulo won the Club World Cup game a few years ago. Though this is not the best way to measure how good these clubs are, it’s something.

    But I certainly agree that the financial situations of the European Clubs is often precarious. Portsmouth is flirting with administration and Crystal Palace got a point deduction.

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