I was right about the CBA agreement arriving with no labor stoppage. This week, both sides showed the wisdom of Solomon, and are now the proud owners of half a dead baby each.
But I was hideously, laughably wrong about why the CBA arrived with no labor stoppage.
My main premise was that there is enough common ground between players and management - hell, a bunch of management are former players - should have made an expanding MLS willing and eager to make considerable concessions to the union with a minimum of aggravation. The season opens today - hm, maybe someone should write a preview at some point, oh well - but player-owner relations are at their worst since the Fraser decision. What happened?
I think it was poor tactics on the players' side that led to a compromise that neither side particularly wants to live with. Bastardized free agency came at the cost of potential salary cap gains - it was the worst of both worlds for both sides. Player brinksmanship got the owners to give up something extremely painful, but yet failed to help the majority of the rank and file. Nice work, gentlemen.
The major mistake was made early in negotiations, in my opinion. The players went public with their willingness, if not eagerness, to strike. The strike would be the players' strongest weapon, but it's not their most effective. A weapon you can't or won't use is no weapon at all. The players' arsenal goes directly from slings to a nuke, with nothing in between.
I suppose it's possible to win continued tiny, incremental concessions every five years or so with an ICBM in the background, but the other problem? It's just one nuke.
Now, if the North Koreans or whomever were to drop an H-bomb on my house this afternoon, I would feel rather foolish about saying things like "just one nuke." But, as I disappeared into radioactive mist, I would take comfort knowing that my vaporization would be avenged on a Biblical scale.
A player strike would damage the league greatly. Sponsors and television partners would be annoyed greatly. The public relations disaster would take years to fix. It would not break the owners, since few if any of them are dependent on their MLS teams for their income. I believe their reaction would be a lot closer to "Let's destroy the union" than "Let's give in."
So a strike has to be based on a very fundamental, easy-to-understand issue that inspires across the board unity. Unlimited free agency might have been it, but apparently wasn't after all. (And I still don't think should have been.)
Problem is, by either bluffing or losing their nerve at the last second, the players made the next threat even less plausible...so, ironically, they might have to use it just to seem credible.
To recap, the players five years from now will be facing irritated, disrespectful owners with a fragmented constituency and miniscule credibility.
What to do, what to do.
"Find a Marvin Miller" is a fantastic idea, and yet, NFL, NBA and NHL players haven't gotten around to it. So the right time to begin planning for the 2020 CBA is today.
First, the players should decide to be an incrementalist union, or to demand significant, serious, unprecedented change. This week's negotiations looked like the union either changed its mind midstream or didn't make up its mind in the first place. There's certainly room for incremental improvement, probably in great increments - that salary cap is still way too low, and they should get the 28 off that 28/8 before even agreeing to sit down at the table. But they can't prime the pump for weeks saying how prepared they are for a strike, because no one is going to believe it anymore.
Second, that means the players must prepare for a labor stoppage. Begin today. That means getting their own guys united. And that means letting the union reps know that it's all right to say no. Again, if there was a plan going in to this week, it sure didn't look like it. The owners won't be unified, either, especially if they keep expanding. Whoever breaks first, wins. Both sides broke this week, but we won't always be so lucky.
And circle the right date on the calendar. When the CBA is done, so are you. Don't go to training camp. Don't pose in the new uniforms. Don't go to CCL games.
And if the players on whichever team is in the tournament at the time have a problem with punting the Champions League, or are worried about the backlash from fans - well, great. They've learned something very important, primarily that they're not ready for any kind of labor stoppage.
Maybe the players can't say what they want in the 2020 CBA days after signing the 2015 CBA, but clearly articulated goals can't come too soon. Something simple - like "free agency." But something attainable, or at least sincere. I can't emphasize this enough - the players promised to strike over free agency, and neither of that was true. There's going to be considerable skepticism from the other side of the table five years from now. I'd go for the salary cap - either increase it dramatically, or maybe even end it. There are other things that would be nice to get rid of - the draft, trading players without their consent, teams holding onto rights years after leaving MLS. But because of how the negotiations panned out this week, five years from now the rallying cry has to be simple to understand and even simpler to agree with.
The owners, by the way, are far from blameless in all this. If and when the players do put forward their demands, they should consider meeting all or most of them immediately. Trying to run up the score is going to create the very unified union they don't want to deal with.
I suppose I should also remind my fellow fans before 2020 rolls around, because many of us are forgetful. Labor agreements don't improve the level of play. They're the same guys they were on Sunday. They'd be the same players if the minimum salary were $6 million. This was, is, and will be a league devoted to the development of the American player program (and Canadian player program, he quickly adds, with the same level of sincerity and accuracy as people who use the term "Judeo-Christian"). They're still going to play just as hard for us, because that's what they do and who they are. McBride and Hejduk played under much crappier deals than this. Support them or not - call them mediocre or not. But people who think that this labor deal guarantees mediocrity - starting with that twit Haisley from Deadspin - aren't doing anything but insulting player commitment and pride.