MLS CBA Crunch Time II: Who's Zooming Who?

Not to rain on anyones' MLS Preseason Parade, but unless I've been too buried in hate-drenched, spittle-flecked anger from north of the Ice Curtain to have heard the news, MLS is still operating sans a labor agreement.

(Of course it does appear that said curtain has moved several hundred miles south this week and now runs through Albemarle County North Carolina)

In any case, herewith - and I apologize for repeating a gimmick - my contribution to jump starting a sense of urgency:

Over the three month span between Real Salt Lakes' delightfully improbable MLS Cup victory and the January 31 drop-dead date for the leagues' collective bargaining agreement with the players, much comment was made about - well, about how little comment was being made.

Aside from Bob Foose's ill-conceived "End of the World as We Know It" predictions and FIFPros' equally irrelevant "Workers of the World Unite" malarkey, there wasn't much for fans to chew on. A couple of veteran players made some carefully couched comments, Keller and Donovan issued strident statements that sounded so much like they were reading from a script that you could almost see Eddie Popes' lips moving and, beyond that, the silence was deafening.

And of course from the league office we got the occasional "Gosh, everything is just hunky-dory; we don't know what the fuss is about" blather but literally nothing else.

Then came the last minute "We're not done yet but we're going to keep plugging away until we either get a deal done or the hotel runs out of fois gras" media blurbs from both sides, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and preseason preparations continued apace.

But if anyone thought this inaugurated an Era of Good Feeling and Transparency with regard to the proceedings, they've surely been bitterly disappointed. We still don't have a clue about what they agreed on, what they still need to work out, how far apart the sides are or even if they're actually meeting at all.

Fortunately, sometime in the next however many hours the counter above reflects, someone is going to have to tell us something. Either a) there's a deal b) there's no deal but they're extending again or c) Bob Foose and Don Garber are in holding cells down at One Police Plaza after having assaulted each other with exquisitely hand-stitched leather briefcases and Mont Blanc fountain pens.

Oh the humanity.

So while we're waiting for puffs of white smoke to finally emerge from the vent pipe in New York, this is as good a time as any to point out that by rights there really needs to be a third party represented in that room:

The fans.

(I'd be happy to engage the firm of Loney, McGuire, Collins and Selzer as our negotiating team, with the proviso that they have to buy their own lunches. Like MLS, us fans are a pretty stingy bunch when it comes to expense accounts.)

Fortunately, both the parties agree that their highest priority and concern is the same as ours:

Quality of play.

Now I'm going to leave aside my deeply held personal desire to whack Commissioner Garber and his bosses on the head, repeatedly, with a tire iron while calmly lecturing them on the fact that "quality soccer" and "plastic grass" are mutually exclusive terms - witness MLS Cup 2009 - and instead move on to the larger issue, that being that of the three indicated entities, the fans are the only ones who aren't completely full of crap on this issue.

For the players, it's an easy one:

Now, I'm certain that somewhere deep down inside they'd love for the league they toil in to be an amazing extravaganza of footballing skills and tactical genius, each match a gleaming jewel of art and loveliness.

But mostly they want more money.

Because let's be honest here: when presented with the choice of either a) "quality play" or b) a better dental plan and a league-matched 401k, do we really have to point out which way they're going to vote?

In reality, the problem for most of them is a tricky one: they want MLS salaries to go up as much as they can without going so high that they start being replaced by better players.

Because of course the ugly secret is that if Garber and Foose emerge arm-in-arm on Friday afternoon and announce to the assembled world media (ie. Galarcep and Goff, plus Beau Dure if USA Today has made any money this month) that the MLS salary budget has been raised to $20 million per team, a good two thirds of MLSPUs' membership might as well go back to the hotel and start packing their bags.

It's just a fact.

For the owners, it's a lot more complicated.

Back in the good old delusional days of the 1990's, the prevailing theory was that all you needed to do in order to tap into the vast base of soccer fans in the US was to open some stadiums, send 22 assorted guys in short pants out onto the field and, presto, like magic, the money would flow like the waters of Babylon.

Said theory having come dangerously close to shutting the league down entirely around 2001, the owners - most of them of recent vintage, but not recent intelligence - have scaled back their expectations to a more realistic model.

That said, as the recent success of the various "Greed Across America" tours by various debt-besotted European clubs have proven, there are a lot of people residing in the US who will indeed plunk down cold hard cash to watch soccer and, by God, if MLS could somehow tap into all that lovely money, what a wonderful world it would be.

(That still wouldn't mean that the teams would be interested in sharing it with Bob Foose and his boys, but that's their problem, not ours)

When you ask those thousands upon thousands of Eurosnobs why they'll mortgage the house to go watch Barca but won't cough up $40 bucks for a Family Four Pack from their local MLS side, the answer is always he same:

The Euro sides are better.

Well stop the presses, Butch. Who knew?

Now you and I strongly suspect that MLS could field 16 teams this season capable of whomping the bejeezus out of the entire EPL ten times a week and that just wouldn't matter. A lot of those "fans" wouldn't know "quality play" if it popped out of their asses singing "Give My Regards to Broadway" while playing the ukelele.

They're in it for the image, period. Nothing MLS can do, now or ever, to get them through a turnstile.

Still, there is undoubtedly some percentage of them who could in fact be lured into MLS stadiums with "higher quality play", and the league desperately wants and needs them in order to grow.

The problem is: what will they cost?

A long time ago I had to give up my cherished dream of dating Heidi Klum; not because I'm not astonishingly handsome, debonair and charming, but because, frankly, I can't afford her.

Similarly, MLS knows it can't afford that group of ready made soccer fans.

Because to them, "quality play" means EPL or LaLiga or Serie A levels of play. And that costs.

And raising the MLS salary cap to anything even remotely likely - let's say $20 million - wouldn't do it. It's simple business economics.

I used to do some work with a huge electric generating station, and the chief environmental engineer and I became good friends.

He used to say that, when the government started cracking down on emissions, eliminating the first 50% of the garbage was relatively cheap. Removing the next 25% started to get pretty pricey. The next 15% was astronomically expensive, and getting the next 10% was going to bankrupt the company.

Not that they couldn't get it, just that it was going to cost more than they could make in return. (Of course, this being a government mandate, they had to do it anyway, but that's another tale)

The case with MLS would seem to be somewhat similar: they'd love to get the existing soccer fans in the US and Canada, but the enormous amount they'd have to spend to do it isn't worth what they'd get in return.

Alternatively, MLS aims much lower: rather than buying soccer fans, they work at creating them.

Now some people say that one solution to improving the overall caliber of league play is bringing in more Designated Players. However, this ignores the fact that they've been bringing them in since 2007 without noticeable affect beyond of course Mr. Posh.

Unless you're prepared to argue that DPs in New York, Kansas City, D.C. United, Columbus, Seattle, Houston and Toronto, talented as they may be, did a thing to move the attendance needle last season - and I'll save you the trouble; they didn't - then arguing that the solution is more of what didn't work previously only makes you sound like a bureaucrat begging a legislature for increased funding.

It hasn't worked, it isn't working but, doggone it, lets do more of it.

Now you can certainly say that said DP's have increased the "quality of play" in those cities and be on very solid ground. (Well, OK, we can argue about a couple of them, but work with me here). What you can't say is that it made a dimes' worth of difference at the gate.

So while the Commissioner repeatedly tells us that the league's main goal is to increase the "quality of play", and he's probably not lying, it's pretty tough to argue that raising the average MLS salary 10% or 20% or even 30% is going to materially change anything.

More importantly, show them that raising the "quality of play" (by some abstract measure) will increase revenues to a commensurate degree and they'd do it tomorrow.

Bottom line, regardless of what comes to pass behind those doors this week, the fans' negotiating team, as highly motivated and talented as it might be, doesn't have a chance in hell of coming out of there with anything like what it is WE want.

Just the way it is.