The new MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) appears to be a big victory for MLS players and for the league’s management. With four new expansion clubs having paid large fees to join the league and a new TV deal along with several new lucrative sponsorships, Major League Soccer is poised to emerge as one of the global powerhouses in the sport.
The ultimate loser in the MLS CBA agreement is likely to be the ambitious North American Soccer League (NASL), which has tried to make a case at various times in recent years that it can be a concurrent first division thanks to its free market model that includes outright free agency.
Major League Soccer now emerges into its 20th year as a clear American success story. Player wages will increase, freedom of movement will now be allowed in certain circumstances and television exposure will be higher than ever across the globe. From scratch in an industry fraught with risk, owners have in twenty years built an institution that will last for decades to come. MLS isn’t perfect but it took a big step forward Wednesday night.
The NASL has countered that they have a free market approach as opposed to a system that resembles socialism that characterizes MLS’ single entity structure. However, single entity has worked and now MLS is emerging a powerful and strong force in the global football market. NASL on the other hand will face enormous challenges thanks to this CBA.
The newly agreed upon CBA takes the minimum MLS player salaries away from the levels where NASL teams can poach guys from MLS clubs. This almost completely undercuts NASL’s ability to compete for mid and lower level MLS players. The new CBA also ensures that players in MLS can move within the league after a certain period of time. NASL clubs have benefited directly from signing veteran MLS players with mid-level salaries, whose rights were held by a club they did not want to play for. Tampa Bay Rowdies Goalkeeper Matt Pickens and New York Cosmos defender Hunter Freeman are examples of this. While Tampa Bay, New York and also Minnesota can continue to compete with MLS clubs for players, this CBA probably prices the rest of NASL out of competing for legitimate first division players.
NASL has had a hard time convincing many prospective owners of joining the league thanks to rival-league USL’s affiliate agreement with MLS. While I believe NASL has the stronger case to be a sole Division 2 league in the U.S, the writing is on the wall that the USSF is likely to allow USL and its MLS reserve teams to attain the same status as NASL’s highest-level professional teams that draw upwards of 10,000 a game. USL will probably continue to attract new owners and investment thanks to MLS’ interest, leaving NASL virtually alone on an island.