MLS has a bit of a past with rocky collective bargaining negotiations. American soccer players have threatened to go on strike before. In 2010, it was decided that the athletes would strike if the Major League Soccer Players' Union and the league could not come to an agreement. A new collective bargaining agreement was reached though five days before the beginning of the season and thus the strike was avoided. However, this season the players are in search of a new right, something held in every other American sport, but in no other soccer league around the world. MLS players are demanding that the league introduce free agency. On paper, this sounds like a reasonable request but in reality, this will represent a major choice for MLS regarding where the league's future will be.
This is a crossroads for MLS between deciding to follow the American or the European model. The United States is the world leader in football, basketball, baseball, and probably second in hockey only behind Canada. MLS is growing, but it is one of the weaker leagues on the world stage. All American team sports, or at least all long established ones, have free agency, where the players who do not have contracts are dropped into a pool and teams can make each player an offer if they so choose. It allows players to have some choice in which team they would like to play for because they decide the contract and can negotiate how much they will be paid. It is definitely in the best interest of players to land free agency because it puts them in more control. However, integrating free agency into MLS could put policy makers for the league in a bind.
The issue with free agency for soccer though is that MLS is not the only league at play. Introducing free agency would make it much more difficult for athletes playing internationally to join MLS. It also makes it complicated for players in MLS to leave. Europe in particular uses the transfer window as a way for teams to buy and sell players. There is no free agency. The conflicting models provide a logistical nightmare. MLS could find a way to create a dual system where teams can transfer players in and out but can also sign players via free agency. Any player without a contract in the US looking to move to a different country could be regarded as a free transfer in the European transfer window. Either way, the whole model would be difficult to construct. The thing that makes free agency work in the other four sports is that there is a relatively finite group of players in each free agent pool. All the players are looking to play in the United States’ domestic leagues. Those are the top leagues in which to play worldwide. The same cannot be said for MLS as they have competition from leagues all over. They are not the elite league where players go to make it big.
Unfortunately, MLS has not set itself up in the best possible way to accommodate players. They do not line up with the rest of the world’s 11-month season or transfer window periods. Many have argued that the US should make the change to acclimate with the rest of the world. I think MLS commissioner Don Garber and his advisors need to decide which model they plan to follow. If it is the American model that centers on free agency and a shorter season, then buy into all the way. If it is the European model relying on the transfer window and an 11-month season, then make the commitment. MLS needs to stop being pulled between the two ideologies and pick one that will dictate its path. If they continue to toy around with this limbo phase then they will only be stunting potential growth. Not to mention, a strike this year that costs the league games could be a devastating blow to both the league's popularity and stability.