Cheap Agency

Beau Dure asked a pointed question on Twitter before expanding his pro-free agency thoughts here

Let's see if we can look at the numbers and give him an answer. 

Looking at the MLS Player Salaries as of September 2014.  Five NYCFC players are listed, and Frank Lampard was not one of them.  Maybe in retrospect we should have paid more attention.

That's not what I was meaning to look up, though.  According to the MLS Players Union, the San Jose Earthquakes paid their team a few blips shy of four million bucks.  That's an entire team that made less than Robbie Keane - who, in fairness, had a much better year than they did.

So, there's our answer, right?  Of course the teams can pay more.  Toronto is widely considered to have vastly overpaid for both Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe last year.  On the eve of these CBA negotiations, they have now overpaid for Jozy Altidore. 

That has hardened the players' stances, since for the first time people like Omar Gonzalez are openly talking about a strike:

As McIntyre reminded me, this marks a significant change from previous years, where the players were careful to put the onus on any potential labor stoppage squarely on the owners.  The MLSPU is either very confident, very angry, or both.

The question is free agency.  I think it's the wrong question.

The point was made extremely impolitely by Dave Denholm of Three for a Win:

"Mike" is Mike Magee, proving that Denholm is not going to be tactful when making points.

But is he right?  If he is, then the MLSPU is promising labor disaster for the sake of a mirage.

Sadly, I think Denholm is on to something.

First, let's look at the NASL.  Your Fellow Posters have over time analyzed the basic NASL salary, and for all but a small palmful, "nominal" would be a monstrous overstatement.  The NASL and its fans have maintained since day one that they are in no way or sense inferior to MLS...which, among other things, is extremely helpful for the league in answering any lingering legal questions in connection with Fraser v. MLS.  The free market exists, and it stinks on ice.

We've also mentioned Designated Players.  They might not have a big impact on your team, depending on how much of a Sherjill your DP is, but it's pretty tough to say they aren't free agents.  I will maintain to my dying day that the blind draw was simply the league masking the fact that the Revolution outbid the Fire for Jermaine Jones' services.  For players above that level, there isn't even the need for the mask.  Toronto was willing to pay more than anyone else in MLS for Altidore...maybe more than anyone else in the world.  There is an existing mechanism for MLS players to attain free agency - simply become good and/or popular enough. 

The players will also have to come to terms with the SuperDraft.  It too shows the free marketplace in occasionally unflattering terms - players have actually chosen COLLEGE over the SuperDraft, for God's sake!  It also is the primary means of binding MLS players to teams for a good portion of their careers. 

It is the much-mocked and oft-breached "salary cap" that is the players' biggest enemy.  What doth it profit a player who wants two hundred thousand instead of one hundred thousand, if no other team in the league is willing to make room?  Denholm may be right, or he may be wrong - but for the MLS middle class, there is no way to know.  The Revolution are underpaying for a lot of their great players, Lee Nguyen being simply the most obvious example.  Now, the Revolution won't have Shalrie Joseph and somebody called Geoffrey Castillion clogging up their books, so the salary cap isn't causing a crisis in this case.  But you can't simply pay everyone $125,000 a year - some players aren't worth that, and many are worth appreciably more. 

There is also the inescapable fact that MLS is, and is likely to remain, a single entity.  A single entity can't collude against itself.  Even collusion among Major League Baseball teams would not have been an issue, if the owners hadn't signed a collective bargaining agreement promising not to.  It goes without saying that the players will insist on a way to make sure free agency is genuinely free - but it will have to be a corporate policy agreed to in a CBA, and nothing that will force MLS to disband and reorganize.

Now, before we go any further, keep in mind exactly how wrong I've been about Hope Solo, and how important it is to give her a second chance.  I could certainly be wrong about this, too.

But here's what I think.  Either the players are bluffing, or misguided.  Free agency, without significant changes in the salary cap and the SuperDraft, is barely worth the trouble.  And the players have not yet made a public issue of the cap or the draft.

Fortunately, the league has shown itself willing to encumber itself with embarrassing and complicated structures like the Re-Entry Draft and the Jermaine Jones blind draw, in order to avoid the appearance of free agency while accepting, in some cases, its reality. 

There are simply too many ways for both parties to leave the table feeling okay to good, if not great, to justify either side imposing a labor stoppage.  The owners shouldn't want the status quo - a streamlined and transparent player acquisition process helps the clubs, too.  The players shouldn't hope to overthrow the salary cap and the draft - not when even NFL and NBA players haven't rid themselves of similar handicaps.  We won't see free agency, but we will see something closer to it.  And we won't miss a single game.

Also, Hope Solo is going to start every game at the World Cup for the US.  All four of them, as we will be eliminated in an upset in the second round.  And the Galaxy will win its second consecutive MLS Cup.  I've got a lot of things I plan to be tragically wrong about in 2015, so I might as well get it all out there.