Changing times in MLS as salaries are published and CBA negotiations loom
In the early days of the industrial revolution, the northern English town of Huddersfield had a population of 11,000 -- 1,000 of whom were soldiers stationed there to prevent outraged cottage artisanal weavers from smashing the new looms in the town's mills, which they saw as threatening their way of life. The "Luddites," as they were known, and subsequently much misunderstood, were an unintended social consequence of rapid industrial expansion.
I thought about that example this week, as the rapidly shifting MLS landscape underwent its latest changes, with news of Chivas USA being put on hiatus, the possible sale of the Red Bulls and, in the midst of it all, the brief snapshot of these times that is the latest salary figures released by the MLS players' union.
Each of these developments has its own merits and unintended consequences. That's the thing with all this rapid expansion -- it's sometimes not clear until it's happened whether that rumbling we're hearing is just the sound of necessary infrastructure being put in place to handle increased capacity, or the fallout of amateur fracking at MLS HQ.
And along the way there are victims; that Luddite example I was thinking of came to mind when reading some tweets this week from longtime Chivas fans. It's long been clear that something had to change at the club (that historical Huddersfield population could have almost doubled the gates at Chivas home games this year), and this year's promised "shop window" year under MLS ownership sounded promising on paper. But even the relentless positivity and fortitude of interim president Nelson Rodriguez has had its limits in trying to motivate a club and fan base that knew it was careering into an undetermined future.
And with the likelihood of a two-year hiatus before a relaunch, the long-suffering fans who do remain have found themselves adapting to times changing around them. The Black Army 1850 supporters' group may not be the biggest supporters' group in the country, but they're passionate, loud and know how to punch above their weight -- they've greeted the news of their team's impending absence with the announcement that they hope to stand with the away fans at an LA Galaxy game.
A tweet to that effect was met with approval by Philadelphia's Sons of Ben, whose own tactic of heckling both teams at games had once been part of their "squeaky wheel" strategy in support of landing that city an MLS club.
New York Red Bulls fans had just about adjusted to recently being handed a portion of their official history back, with the introduction of a banner at the stadium in MetroStars colors with the legend "As Long As We're Breathing," when news broke this week that Red Bull might be willing to hand over the keys to the stadium, symbolic banners and all, should an interested party come up with $300 million.
It should be noted that MLS commissioner Don Garber has denied the franchise is for sale. If the current ownership group is considering its options, however, it makes sense of recent months at Red Bull Arena (where that banner unfurling prompted a nagging thought of medieval serfs temporarily running the castle as an autonomous collective, while Lord Dietrich was off fighting one of his interminable foreign wars).
Since last season's Supporters' Shield charge there's been a growing, and to the fans' minds worrying, sense of drift at the club, as the imminent arrival of NYCFC on their turf has been met with apparently limited ambition. No third designated player has arrived, and there has been no USL Pro team, while the team on the field has symbolized the inertia with, seemingly, every instance of potency going forward being offset by hemorrhaging goals at the back.
In previous moments under the Red Bull regime, that would have meant a publicly ticking clock for the head coach, but the sense of absent ownership has never felt so pronounced as this year. And while Mike Petke could yet be made the scapegoat if the team are overhauled on the playoff run-in, or again fail to make progress in the postseason, there's been little sense of the Red Bulls organization greeting the expansion mode of the league with, well, bullishness. In the evolving MLS landscape they're increasingly looking like Netflix if they'd said "People will always need DVDs" and rejected streaming as an option.
Of course these local disturbances are one thing, but a more seismic disturbance to the landscape may be underway soon as the CBA negotiations get going in earnest. Just as the "phony war" period of New York soccer's new reality will be ending in a few months, so the league will be operating under a new set of collective principles between owners and players.
Seen in that light, the snapshot of the latest salary figures might be viewed as one that captures the end of an era, while speculation around the curios of Kaka's huge salary, or the arcane mechanisms that have David Villa on a $60,000 base, have to be seen in context of the rather many more sub-$100,000 figures dotted across the spreadsheet.
Salary cap, freedom of movement and transparency of league operations are likely to be among the main bones of contention as the CBA negotiations get underway. When the dust has settled we'll have a rather more realistic sense of how the new entrepreneurial wave of owners and the sports industrialist conservationists have reached an entente among themselves, let alone with the players, about what a responsible rate and type of competitive expansion might look like.
The recent wave of USMNT returnees signaled an increase in ambition, but for those moves to have sustained competitive relevance, we should be looking not at the outliers at the top end of the salary cap, but how the base salaries define the other players in the squad.
It's not that those players will be smashing up looms (or Frank Lampard's locker) in protest at whatever they get, but all the league's wishes to be judged on its competitive merits in the next phase of its development will in many ways be contingent on those players more than the marquee players.
The latter will always have their place (though one consequence of all the current speed of development that can be predicted fairly comfortably is that you can only skew the market for so long), but if the MLS revolution is to have a solid foundation and not too many unintended consequences, the players, and indeed fans, on the ground floor cannot be ignored.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.