On Twitter, I have seen more and more MLS pundits sitting firmly behind the MLS Players Union, wanting to see them hold strong and fight for free agency.
This is an interesting position for these pundits, who over the years have been quite staunch in a belief that I would characterize as “MLS Knows Best.”
Allocation order? “Sure, MLS knows best.”
Seattle getting Dempsey? “Ok, MLS knows best.”
Of course, the real synthesis of this belief comes from the most polarizing topic of all:
Promotion and relegation? “Hell no, because MLS knows best.”
So you can see that the vigilance with which these writers and podcasters have been supporting the players isn’t exactly following form. Don Garber’s crew has been vigorously against free agency, saying that franchises fighting for talent would drive up prices.
Within that talk is masked the entire need for the Single Entity, and that is preventing rogue, deep-pocketed clubs from overbidding on talent. Some will argue that leveraging the risk of loss evenly among many owners is a major reason, but at this point it is minor. The league is raking in money through media contracts, and there has never been more interest in expansion.
Supporting players’ rights to move freely in a competitive market directly contradicts the Single Entity structure. This could mean that there is a bit of a change in the blind consideration that “MLS knows best.” Perhaps the average MLS pundit has finally realized the brokenness of the status quo, and thinks this is the best opportunity to see it destroyed.
It used to be that Roster Rules existed to benefit smaller teams. But the evolution of the Designated Player has altered the paradigm. Today, aside from sheer luck, only the big spenders can acquire the best players.
The drafts are outdated, yielding teams what normally amounts to squad players (save your occasional Graham Zusi). Instead, the way to build a great team is to buy talent – and to work the archaic system.
For instance, the New York Red Bulls found a way to acquire Sacha Kljestan, even though they were a playoff team in 2014. A few traded assets to Montreal yielded New York the top Allocation Ranking, the mechanism used for distributing returning USMNT players (unless it’s not, of course…see Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley). It’s tough to believe anyone who follows MLS could see this as fair to Montreal.
Without Single Entity, New York would acquire the player – or maybe they wouldn’t. For instance, the LA Galaxy may have instigated a bidding war with the Red Bulls. In MLS, this kind of development is despised.
Of course the Galaxy, reigning Champions, were rumored to have interest in Kljestan. Keep in mind they had already lined up Steven Gerrard to join in the summer. Can you say, “The rich keep getting richer?”
For Montreal’s trouble of being worst in MLS, they get a couple of spare parts, a little money, and a crapshoot of a top pick in the MLS Draft – all the while the heavyweights load up with talent. Isn’t it clear to see that even with Single Entity, the have or have not paradigm has already arrived?
The Single Entity derives unwieldy rules that drive people away from the domestic league. Right now, a soccer fan can pick any Premier League club and the hierarchy makes sense. The big clubs have money, and the big clubs get better. There isn’t any stupidity surrounding drafts and orders.
I fully believe that the Single Entity wasn’t meant to be a long-term staple of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Much like a preschooler’s training wheels, eventually the youngster has to take their lumps without such safety mechanisms. The freedom can be scary at times, but eventually the child learns to pedal within their limitations in order not to crash and burn.
MLS needs to be in a similar situation. Of course, the league will grab hold of Single Entity kicking and screaming until some outside impetus drives them to change.
Can it be the MLS Players Union? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. I’ve never been truly set on the idea that these players are going to take the owner’s to the brink. Eventually bills will need to be paid, and I’m not thinking that Sheikh Mansour and Bob Kraft will be the ones eating PB&J to make ends meet.
So then, what other outside agent could force MLS’s hand?
The best answer is the Federation President, Sunil Gulati.
The Federation could step up and order MLS to drop Single Entity. They could threaten sanctioning, saying that the structure inhibits the sport’s growth in the United States. Where Single Entity was supposed to be a short-term stabilizing force, instead it has evolved into a long-term profit-extracting scheme.
But Gulati has no interest in removing these reins. Gulati the Economist is a proponent of the structure, and he has been a long-term advisor to Kraft. The math isn’t difficult to perform. Is it difficult to imagine a grand conflict of interest in the entire situation?
Choosing a side in the labor battle doesn’t necessarily dictate your position on Single Entity, of course. There are just fewer and fewer reasons to believe that the system isn’t simply in place to make a select few even richer.
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