Thursday, January 29, 2015

MLS, Its Middle Class, and the CBA's still about where you're from.
As with most offseason weekdays, the noteworthy news followed players moving from one club to another. In one key case, the story follows a player to a club outside Major League Soccer (MLS). There’s a larger story in there (or I just stuffed it in there to service an argument).

One player who landed on the import side of the ledger was French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, who joined Toronto FC…just like seemingly every other player coming to MLS this year (srsly, isn’t there a roster limit?). Oh, Juan Agudelo returned to the New England Revolution...even if in something short of triumphal circumstances. Both players headed across the Atlantic, but their stories return and arrival have little in common.

I don’t know much about Cheyrou as a player – i.e. a single tweet contains the sum of my knowledge (it liked him!) - but his is a fairly standard issue signing of an aging European star: Give us your aged, your weary, your players listing toward decline, wanting to play where they can still play well and get good money for doing so. And, of course, yearning to breath free, etc.

Yeah, cheap shot, but signings like Cheyrou and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and even some of Europe’s lesser-known lights express a pretty straightforward truth: these are good days for European imports. That's not to knock these players, because most of them will show up and do pretty well, if not pretty damn well. With those older guys, though, there's definitely a catch - namely, that these guys won't be around forever, or even for long. In no small way, they serve as a series of expensive band-aids that the relevant clubs have to replace season after season after season. To concoct another analogy, this approach sacrifices long-term investment by MLS clubs to repeatedly hitting the quarterly targets. Worse, they eat up more cap than others while they're here...and a salary cap, by definition, is zero-sum (e.g. you can’t get what someone else has).

Agudelo, on the other hand, comes back not just without allocation-process bonafides, but on the heels of a long, strange trip abroad, sort of an accidental Grand Tour that somehow detoured into the Cyprian real estate market. Hit that link for the full story, but the short version hints at how hard it can be for an American player to get over to the Euro big leagues. And that speaks to another pretty straightforward truth: "he really needs to play at the highest level" doesn't work like the goddamn State Farm jingle. It's not enough to say it, something the hallelujah chorus that loves that line needs to keep in mind. Just like the league.

Then again, there's always Scandinavia. And there's another truth, even if it's a less straightforward one. Way back, oh, I'm thinking the early aughts, the nagging fear existed that the Scandinavian leagues could bleed MLS of just about any player able to make it there. That notion returned to me today when word came out that long-time MLS defender Heath Pearce gave Orlando City a hearty "so long, and suck it!" and packed his bags for Sweden. Even if it wasn't hostile as all that, Pearce left MLS by way of free agency – i.e., the very same bottom-line right for which MLS players are about to strike. He has only a short-term deal in the end, albeit with an option to extend, but he opted to assume the risk instead of trip over the tangle of restrictions that a trip to another MLS club would require.

If it's not clear by now, yes, I think the players should get some form of free agency. I hate clutter, for starters. I'm for free agency even if it comes with the kind of time-in restriction suggested by Ives Galarcep in one of his recent podcasts (e.g. he threw out six years in MLS as a minimum threshold to earn free agency rights; and, fyi, that's solid, clear-eyed chat). Pearce’s situation does, however, speak to something that bears acknowledging: players do have a form of free agency, but only outside MLS. One could call that a spur to action for those players to take charge of their lives and get over to Europe, but I don’t think that should be the only true freedom of movement available to MLS players. I'm also not convinced it’s in the league's interest.

Pearce is a good player. In fact, he's precisely the kind of player that I would love to see my Portland Timbers sign as cover for that thin back-line. Were MLS clubs given the option, I'd imagine that, between Pearce's experience and reputation, he'd draw competing bids between two clubs, maybe even three. And it would be a simpler process for all involved – e.g. player and agent talking to prospective clubs, with the MLS HQ involved only indirectly by way of a salary cap.

From what I gather, the players find this streamlined process so appealing that they're willing to strike in favor. Visions of extra money dancing in their heads surely doesn't hurt either. The overall equation, however, when reduced to its basics speaks to a truth that covers everyone in MLS, with only the DP superstars excepted: the overwhelming majority of players who come to MLS do so, at least in part, courtesy of diminished bargaining power. I suspect this gets even hairier for American players, who lose still more leverage by way an entirely natural desire to live and play closer to friends and family - something else that gets lost when talking up Europe.

Pearce, and every experienced vet like him, represents MLS's middle class. They play regularly, and typically start, and one MLS club or another will generally pick them up year-after-year. The problem comes with the pretty clear ceiling placed on what they can earn. The players want the bidding war and who can blame them? I suspect that the solid, yet unspectacular player – guys like Pearce, basically - will benefit as much as anyone from free agency. Which seems fair, seeing they're getting screwed as hard as anyone by the current system.

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