Changing of the Guard

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December 10, 2014 by Keith Brake

AangI tend to come around late on a lot of things. The recent evidence in this trend is my new-found love of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a Nickelodeon show from the middle of the last decade about a young boy who is tasked with being an unstoppable, devastating elemental force and restoring balance to a world torn apart by war. It pulls its punches on the violence, but still manages to provide some strong character development and compelling story lines, as well as some truly powerful moments. (Grab a Kleenex or two before you watch “Tales of Ba Sing Se.”)

For the unfamiliar, the Avatar is a once-in-a-generation individual who possesses a bond to one of the underpinning spirits of the world, born again in a new body when its previous incarnation dies with each life marking a distinct era. This bond allows the Avatar to command all of the four classical elements – Earth, Fire, Air, and Water (no Heart to be found here, Ma-Tisorry-not-sorry, Ma Ti) – among other nifty powers that come with effectively being the embodiment of a deity. Everyone looks to him as a superhero despite his efforts to shirk the limelight and just be normal and enjoy his life, but when it comes down to it, he has no problem being a total badass and redefining the world as we know it.

Let’s drop the pretense: you already know I’m going to talk about Landon Donovan. For soccer fans in America, he is the Avatar, at times able to bend the world to his will and earn the United States some major props in the international sporting community for his exploits, not to mention the “where were you?” moment of Donovan’s last-gasp Landon Donovanwinner against Algeria to send the US through to the knockout stages in South Africa. (For the record, I was curled up in my bedroom floor in front of a massive CRT TV that morning.) On top of all that is his work in Major League Soccer, staying committed to it when Europe was an option and becoming the league’s most instantly recognizable star. Indeed, one cannot spell “legend” without “LD.”

In a manner of speaking, on an immaculate Sunday afternoon in Carson, California, soccer’s Avatar died, and his era ended.

It was about as perfect of a swan song as Donovan could’ve asked for (short of scoring a goal himself) when Robbie Keane’s stoppage time winner salvaged an otherwise underwhelming MLS Cup Final in favor of the Los Angeles Galaxy. After being put over a barrel by Jurgen Klinsmann (with Klinsmann earning the ire of a wide swath of American soccer fans, which gets worse every time he opens his mouth on domestic soccer), the only way the man’s career could end was with a championship in the league he helped build.

Just like the Avatar, Donovan’s symbolic weight will be reincarnated at some point in the future, although his successor’s role in the history of American soccer will be different because the US no longer wanders the sport’s wilderness. The search for the next Avatar, the poster child of MLS and the future of the World’s Game in the States,Growing_Pains will begin immediately. But in the meantime, the league Donovan was an integral part of for so long will now have to endure some growing pains, and there will be no sharing of laughter and love.

At midnight on February 1, the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and its Players’ Union, will expire. Unless the intervening 53 days produce a new agreement, the league will have to operate without one or face one of the NHL’s favorite pastimes: a lockout. While the outrageous success of MLS over the life of this CBA – the addition of Vancouver, Portland, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, and a second New York team (plus the addition of up to four more teams and the end of the disastrous Chivas USA), a three-fold increase in franchise value since 2008, the signing of a new contract with ESPN, Fox, and Univisión resulting in a five-fold increase in the value of the league’s TV rights (from $18M to $90M), the proliferation of sport-standard jersey sponsors to 19 of the league’s 20 clubs for 2015, and the arrival of world class players like Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry – should lead one to think the league and players would have a great relationship (and they do), there are lots of reasons to believe these labor negotiations will be intense and could lead to the first labor stoppage in the league’s 19 year playing history.

For one, the players are going to want more money. The average salary of a Major League Soccer player is roughly $208,000 – remarkably low by American sporting standards, but a pretty good number compared to the general population. However, three-fourths of the league earns less than that average. It is buoyed by the enormous salaries paid to players like Keane, Donovan, Cahill, Dempsey, and Henry, who earned 21% of all player compensation in MLS in 2013. This number is grossly out of line with the other unionized leagues in American sports, as Empire of Soccer goes into great Graphic-3detail on, and the chart to the left (which can be found at the link) demonstrates that the rise in MLS salaries at the top has led to a corresponding skewing of salaries not at the bottom of the scale, but in the middle class, where the players who from the core of the league’s best teams tend to sit. It’s not entirely surprising that these players tend to be paid close to the $350,000 threshold for Designated Player status, and not wanting to pay a player DP-level compensation is a major reason those sorts of players go abroad. The league suffers for that.

It also suffers from mistrust on player movement from its fans. The lack of transparency in the player allocation system – which effectively allows MLS to arbitrarily decide where players entering the league go – caused a stir in Portland when Clint Dempsey bypassed the allocation order to sign with Seattle, and when the fate of Jermaine Jones was
decided by blind draw. (He went to New England, propelling them to an EasternBlind Draw
Conference championship and the MLS Cup Final, where they came up short against the Galaxy.) It is part of the reason Robbie Rogers left, and why he almost didn’t come out of retirement once he came out as gay; he wanted to play in Los Angeles, but despite having no contract, he couldn’t, because Chicago had acquired his MLS rights from Columbus, who he left to sign with Leeds United in 2012. Rogers had no intention of playing for Columbus or Chicago, but Los Angeles was forced to give up significant assets – specifically, striker Mike Magee – to acquire Rogers.

If that all seems confusing and unnecessarily complicated, that’s because it is.

Rogers’ case is simply a high-profile instance of a general theme: the players have no agency in where they play, and clubs have to jump through burning hoops to get the players they want. The concept of a centralized league, while initially necessary for the league’s survival, now holds it back and creates a grossly inefficient labor market. The union knows this, and, as Brian Straus suggests in an excellent article on this very subject, greater player agency could be where the union puts up the biggest fight – and where MLS sees its first lockout.

I love soccer and I enjoy watching and discussing MLS, but the league has found itself Long Nightstorn between two worlds. On one side is the world of MLB and other American franchise leagues, where the league has effectively cornered the market on talent and uses salary caps and restricted free agency to keep wages from spiraling out of control while allocating talent through things like the draft; on the other side is Europe, with a wide-open free market system where teams develop their own players, free agency is wide open, and teams change leagues and levels of competition regularly. There is a balance to be struck, but there will be a lot of long nights in New York City to decide what path MLS wants to take.

DeAndre YedlinIn the meantime, the search for Donovan’s successor as Avatar of American Soccer is on. Who knows, he might have already played against Donovan. He might have even played with him. Or maybe, like a true master of the elements, he has done both. I mean, come on: the arrow on his head is a dead giveaway.

Word Count: 1,427
Total Word Count: 5,554


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