The central, crucial, primary and overriding message of the Jermaine Jones assignment is this: MLS will do anything to avoid free agency. Anything. Even the perception of free agency. The only exceptions to this will be on a very, very individual basis. As in, Beckham and Henry basis. As in, starters for the US national team in a World Cup year are not on that basis, basis.
That, to me, is fascinating. Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu chose their own MLS teams, when the league was smaller and weaker. Now? Recall Clint Dempsey Himself provided a list of three - and the league scotched at least one of them flat, maybe two if you don't think Toronto rejected Dempsey willingly.
Jermaine Jones thought he could pick his own team, like a superduperstar, but he ended up being just another Dempsey. Guillermo Rivera did an excellent job covering this story, encapsulating the process, and foaming with rage (Rivera is based on Chicago, and for some reason the Fire fan base is not at this moment what our English friends might call "chuffed." It's worth reminding ourselves of the details and timeline of all this, so here you go.
No, really, go read it. Don't make me recap it all. I'd just be plagiarizing Rivera. Leave me my pride.
Anyway, here, to me, was the most crucial of the crucialest moments:
Well...if Jones isn't actually willing to play in New England, what he needs to do now is retire, or fire his agents and demand MLS sell his contract, or something pretty drastic. He might even sue his agents for not informing him that he was in danger of playing for New England. Because if Jones suits up for the Revolution, there is a real possibility that someone might conclude that's what he wanted. Or at least, that he was willing to play for the Revolution in exchange for more money.
I'm not going to sit here and suggest the blind draw wasn't actually blind. One of the random options involved a larger amount of money that was carefully negotiated before the client would agree to the coin flip - heck, why not. Kraft and Jones and the league spent weeks on a scenario where Jones could play for New England and make all those parties happy, and then those parties were fine with a 50-50 chance that they were back to status quo Ante Razov. Sure. The blind draw ends up exactly replicating what anywhere else would be simply a club swooping in at the last minute and making a better offer. I buy that.
Because it doesn't matter whether I buy it or not. The league was willing to go to these lengths to preserve the outward forms of single entity. Was Chicago given the opportunity to sweeten its own deal, or were they prevented from doing so by the league? Doesn't really matter. The farce of the blind draw was for our benefit, not Jones or the teams involved. Farcical actually suited their purposes much better. Had Chicago offered more money, we would have had a blind draw and Chicago would have won.
Not that I'm saying the blind draw wasn't really blind. We'll never know.
Okay, I'm exactly saying that. But what does it change?
There's a reason that MLS would rather have you, me, and its players think they're bumbling fools than have them believe that MLS teams bid against each other for players. This was where I draw the opposite conclusion from Rivera - his conclusion, for those of you just too god-damned lazy to click on a simple link, was this:
What should come as a surprise is the manner in which MLS embarrassed themselves in a high profile player negotiation. It won't go unnoticed this January as the league has now set a precedent for open bidding, back door negotiation, dismissal of their own rules, and direct competition for player signatures from competing owner/operators working under the single entity structure. MLSPU is surely taking note.
The mess will be of the league's own doing.
I hesitate before contradicting this, especially in light of all the work Rivera put in, but, nope!
The league has shown a remarkable resilience to this kind of embarrassment, for one thing. My favorite early days example was how Andy Williams was acquired by the Columbus Crew. Via the discovery process. They discovered Williams when he was on the Jamaican national team that made the US look pretty bad. In a game broadcast on national television. And by they, I mean, DC United. The Crew put in a discovery claim later, and were granted Williams because they had the worse record.
Then there was Luis Hernandez. I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness after trying to figure out why that acquisition needed a "dispersal draft," but it ended up involving Hernandez, Clint Mathis, Joey Franchino, and Roy Myers joining LA, New England and the then-Metrostars. The Galaxy won nothing with Hernandez (he was suspended for the 2001 Open Cup), the Metrostars won nothing with Mathis and Myers, and the Franchino was only nominally a Rev when they won the 2007 Open Cup.
And when the Galaxy wanted to acquire David Beckham, they had the league create an entire new rule - the one whose alleged sanctity we are now seeing violated so callously. It would be a mildly interesting argument to guess how the league would have developed if the Designated Player had been in place earlier - but maybe nothing would have changed. Players like Campos, Valderrama, Lalas and Cobi Jones were DP's back when the term was "marquee player," and every salary was a tightly-guarded secret.
Then again, if the 2003 Fire had been able to keep Beasley or (and?) Bocanegra, they might have had more than one trophy since then. (The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup - providing asterisks for the trophy-free since 1997.)
If flunking the smell test was going to kill MLS, it would have died a decade ago. Since it would literally take almost less effort to Google an example of equally embarrassing player acquisitions from clubs unencumbered by single-entity than it would to type out "Luis Suarez," the run on fainting couches by American-based soccer fans is mysterious.
As far as the players' union noting that the league's rules are literally made to be broken, that has been true for at least ten years now, and has been applied to everyone as or more famous than Freddy Adu. Jermaine Jones got away (sort of, a bit) with getting teams to bid against each other. I would say that every single player in MLS who has a fantastic World Cup for the US national team will be able to do something like that, too. Not actually picking his team, mind you, but narrowing it down.
And the league is willing to pay individual players a premium in order to maintain the illusion. This isn't about money. Well, that's fatuous, of course it is - but they are willing to pay a fee in order to preserve the larger money-making structure.
The "open" bidding, tense negotiations, and intra-league fighting over player services is indeed out in the open. How the MLSPU intends to transfer even an approximation of those privileges to the rank-and-file player escapes me completely. The blueprint would be for the league's true superstars to keep solidarity with their co-workers, at a serious short-term financial cost for all involved. This plan worked beautifully in Major League Baseball, rather less so in other sports. I don't know how many paychecks MLS players are in a position to miss, nor do I know how much support players like Jones and Dempsey (not Donovan or Henry anymore) are in a position to give. But I doubt those numbers add up to extended labor stoppage.
Besides, and I'm surprised more isn't made of this, there is an unusual amount of crossover between labor and management in MLS. Chris Klein, Mike Burns and Garth Lagerwey are former players and current management. (Huh - John Doyle hasn't been fired yet. Okay, him too, I guess.) That's an unusual amount of former players in executive positions. They probably aren't in a position to storm their employers' barricades, but they can certainly articulate the complaints of the players to the owners, and convey the owners' positions to the players with more than a little empathy. I think the upcoming CBA negotiations will be much less painful than people fear, especially because the message was that the owners are willing and able to give up so much besides granting free agency. Don't worry, be happy.
(I anticipate David Beckham having rank-and-file player rapport that could be described as Jordanesque, but I might be wrong. In other news, I also anticipate David Beckham actually owning a team, but I might be wrong there.)
So yeah, the blind draw was funny, but repercussions? Actual, real effects of all this? I don't expect much.
Chicago fans will probably have the longest memory of this, so if some of them want to become ex-Chicago fans over this, it's not my place to stop them. But those fans would have to reconcile blaming Kraft and Garber with the equal dose of blame for Jones. That, and the impossibility of designing a system where this wouldn't happen, probably won't calm them down, but should. Jermaine Jones would have given the Chicago Fire two years of first-round elimination instead of two years of missing the playoffs - it's too soon to say the league did them a favor this weekend, so I won't, but I am. Maybe in two years, when Jones is 34 and still sucking down Kraft's money while New England is trying to re-re-rebuild, will give them perspective. Or maybe when the Fire realize that among the rules that the league isn't enforcing is the one where your coach has to be named "Frank."