At this year's Major League Soccer SuperDraft, league commissioner Don Garber was booed as he rose to the stage to give his opening address, before the first college player was picked. "You know you have arrived when you have the boo birds," he quipped.
[Major League Soccer: Create your own starting XI – Play Fantasy MLS]
Garber has indeed arrived. At a crossroads.
Some 15 years into his immensely successful tenure as commissioner, the ongoing standoff between Major League Soccer's owners and the league's Players Union over the introduction of free agency in the new collective bargaining agreement could well prove a seminal moment for both the league's history and Garber's legacy.
In just a few days, teams are scheduled to begin flying around the country for the first slate of games to kick off MLS's 20th season. But with no agreement in sight, a labor stoppage seems ever more likely. A lengthy one could undermine everything Garber and MLS have achieved. Labor strife makes for terrible publicity, especially when a league is supposed to be on the verge of taking off, and they can have seriously harmful effects in the long run. (See: The NHL's four ascent-crippling lockouts since 1992; baseball's waning relevance since the 1994 strike; the NBA's painful 1998-99 lockout.)
In recent years, Garber has become increasingly assertive as commissioner, and he now seems to have consolidated enough power to funnel the owners into whatever direction he sees fit. He could probably get free agency written into the new CBA if he fought for it. And he should, because it would not only do right by the players, but it would ultimately serve the league as well.
If he fails to do so, all the good he has done for MLS could be compromised by one bad decision.
And Garber has done a lot of good. It's becoming increasingly easy to forget the desperate state MLS was in when the veteran NFL executive replaced Doug Logan as commissioner halfway through the 1999 season – the league's fourth year in operation, and from the looks of it then, possibly one of its last.
Two years later, Garber, who by his own admission knew very little about soccer when he took the job, had to contract two teams – the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny – just to stop the bleeding. A dozen teams were cut back to 10, just to give the league a chance to survive. The mouse had gnawed off its own leg to escape the trap.
Look at the league now. Every team will soon have a soccer-specific stadium, save for the Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution who share NFL venues. The new television deal is worth a multiple of the last one. There will be 24 teams a few years from now. And prospective owners are lining up to pay expansion fees that have soared to $100 million, even though the league claims to still lose money.
Garber managed to diversify and strengthen ownership. At one time, almost all the clubs were owned by Philip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt or Robert Kraft. Garber found more owners and then, where necessary, found better owners if the incumbents proved inept, insufficiently aspirational or unwilling to spend as necessary to drive growth.
That growth, though, was always slow. The salary cap crept up by just a few percentage points each year and last season, it was still only $3.1 million, not including anything the teams' three designated players were paid over $387,500. Garber understood the dangers of the league expanding too rapidly, or briefly becoming a fad but burning out quickly. Everything was done with meticulous caution, even as MLS solved the puzzle of its own viability on the fly.
Eventually, the need for more star power was recognized and the league started splashing out well-above-market rate salaries for the right players – like David Beckham in 2007 and Thierry Henry in 2010 – whose added value promised to exceed their hefty paychecks. That worked, too. The league gained legitimacy and attention. That's when a fever to build shiny new stadiums took hold.
Step back from the day-to-day minutiae, where the league did plenty wrong – the often ham-fisted handling of contract and transfer negotiations; the weird system of allocating money and players; the totally opaque finances – and the bigger picture comes into view. And it's a story of stunning success.
Garber has been recognized for his achievements by the Sports Business Journal. In the publication's list of the most influential people in American sports, Garber has steadily risen from 45th place in 2005 to 19th in 2014.
But it's come time to think bigger. The league isn't in survival mode anymore. If it is to make good on its ambition to be one of the world's best by 2022, its outlay will need to match its ambition now. Soccer is a mercenary world. You get what you pay for. To be one of the best leagues, you need some of the best players, and the only way to get them is to pay like you're one of the best leagues. It's not that complicated. No league with seven-figure payrolls will ever belong to the world's elite.
It starts with the players you already have. Granting them internal free agency – they are already free to go abroad when their deals are up – will create a domestic market for their services and ensure they're paid what they're worth. This removes the incentive to look overseas and keeps better plays at home – also meaning they don't have to be brought back at premium price tags when they become stars, like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. With free agency in place, clubs will likely push for a higher salary cap as their zeal to compete requires more and more money. That will free up more money to bring in foreigners who help raise the playing level.
The league is seven years from its self-imposed deadline. This process will take time. Credibility as a top-tier destination for players isn't built overnight, and neither is a talent pool befitting such a league. MLS is probably already behind on its tight timeline. Free agency would help it catch up quickly.
But MLS is hiding behind two nonsensical principles. The first is "cost certainty," the notion that free agency would rob owners of control over expenditure. This is a silly premise on a number of grounds – it can always choose not to sign a player if he's too expensive; and the salary cap will still keep a lid on payrolls. The other is that free agency can't exist within a single-entity league because the same company would be competing against itself for its own talent. This is ridiculous as well since the league's 20 teams are in open and perpetual competition with each other, and MLS is obviously a single company in name only.
If the league doesn't keep up its prodigious growth by injecting the requisite cash through free agency, it could plateau and lose that hard-earned momentum. And what all the involved parties agree on is that, while the league shows immense promise, what it is now isn't yet good enough.
As for Garber, there is speculation that he could retire when his contract is up after the 2018 season, when he'll be 61, ending a 20-year tenure. If, under Garber's leadership, MLS gets it wrong on free agency, he could be remembered not as the man who saved professional soccer in America, but the one whose cautious approach ultimately caused it to stagnate.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.