In one week near the end of September, MLS’ Philadelphia Union traveled to New York City and back, then across the country to San Jose and back home before it went westward yet again to Columbus.
Union star Alejandro Bedoya injured his quadriceps in that third game in eight days and called it his career’s first muscle injury.
In that time, he flew cross-country twice in economy class and sat on a bus in traffic between San Jose and San Francisco for two hours the morning after a game.
“I do believe if we had flown charter directly after the game in San Jose, that could have prevented my injury,” he said.
That’s why Bedoya — an MLS Players Association bargaining-committee member — has endorsed in labor-contract conversations with owners that MLS joins major sports leagues in making chartered air travel standard.
It’s one of several issues discussed in negotiations that will intensify now that the MLS Cup is over and Tuesday’s expansion draft is here — and long before the current five-year deal expires Jan. 31.
Money, as always, is at the forefront. But the players’ union also seeks what it calls “true” free agency, simplified salary-cap mechanisms and rules, compensation that rewards current performance and better travel that improves performance and turns current travel days into practice or regeneration days.
Players Association executive director Bob Foose calls this go-round all about a partnership that transforms MLS into what Commissioner Don Garber long has sought: a “league of choice” in a global game.
Forbes magazine estimated six of 23 MLS teams made money in 2018. But its new franchise valuations published last week have surged based on rising expansion fees and franchise sales prices.
Foose deems it all “very good news.” Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright calls both his club and MLS on a “growth trajectory” in a sport that has a potentially lucrative television contract arriving in 2023 and the World Cup coming to North America in 2026.
United ownership paid $100 million in 2015 for its expansion fee in a league that’s welcoming five new teams by 2022 for as much as $200 million each. It expects a 30th MLS franchise, likely in Charlotte, N.C., to fetch a $300 million fee after that.
Its top-valued teams — Atlanta United, LAFC and LA Galaxy — are worth an estimated $475 million to $500 million each, after Chicago recently sold for $400 million.
“What it boils down to is an MLS that doesn’t just aspire to be among the world’s best and a league of choice,” Foose said. “But that actually looks and acts like the best of leagues around the world, and therefore is a league that players actually do choose.”
To get there, the players seek a faster path to free agency than a current system that requires a player be at least 28 with eight years of service. They also want the system reinvented, without such concepts as TAM (targeted allocation money) and GAM (general allocation money) that confuse fans.
TAM pumped millions of dollars from MLS into player compensation with restrictions. Teams mostly used it to sign new international players rather than retain their own. For example, Minnesota United signed Finnish midfielder Robin Lod to an $850,000 salary in July while MLS veteran Ike Opara made $350,000 annually last season until he negotiated a big raise in a new contract extension.
“In simplest terms, TAM is silly,” Foose said. “It’s not necessary to try and tell front offices how to sign players.”
Both sides say each is prepared for a work stoppage if a new deal isn’t reached when the current agreement ends, or by season’s start at the latest.
“This is not our first rodeo and not their first rodeo,” Garber, the league’s commissioner since 1999, told reporters Friday in Seattle at the MLS Cup. “We all believe in the league. We love the league. We’ll all do what we need to do to reach an agreement, and we’re all prepared to manage that if we don’t.”
United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay, who is on the union’s executive board, said late in the regular season that players leaguewide are prepared whatever happens.
“Our goal is not to strike or [have] a work stoppage,” Finlay said. “Our goal is to get the best deal possible. We think to become a ‘league of choice’ we have to continue to make major changes. That’s their phrase, but we want to get there as much as they do.”