Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 23 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
The news item that caught the most attention inside MLS circles this week was Sam Stejskal’s report that the league is discussing — or to be more accurate, that a few financially conservative owners would like the league to consider — reducing the number of available designated player spots from three per team to two.
Here’s another bit of news: multiple sources have confirmed to Yahoo Sports that MLS and its Players Union have quietly been discussing either ripping up the collective bargaining agreement that was signed in 2015 and expires in March of 2020 or, and I’ve been led to believe this is the likelier scenario, making significant changes to (and presumably extending) the current pact.
When I first heard this I wasn’t sure it was true. The last two CBAs where both agreed upon at the 11th hour after bitter public sparring between the union and the league, with the prospect of a labor stoppage looming. That’s usually how this goes in other sports, too. Things tend to go down to the wire because that’s when both sides believe they have the most leverage.
After making some calls, it became clear that not only is some sort of revamp possible, but it has been in the works for a while.
“I think its beneficial for both sides to get the conversation started early,” one player rep told me this week. “The league sees how much stronger the players association has gotten since the last negotiation. There’s a bigger staff, there’s more commitment from the players, there’s more understanding of the issues. Because of that, both sides understand that it’s not going to be something that we want to leave until the last two weeks. I don’t think that was beneficial, at least to our side, last time.”
There is no guarantee a deal gets done early. It could drag on until the end once again. But it’s interesting this is even on the docket more than a full year ahead of time.
1. These two big off-field stories are related. There’s no way a reduction in the number of available DPs spots — a dreadful and depressing proposal that I’m told, thankfully, is nowhere near actually hppening — gets done without the MLSPU’s blessing, either in 2020 or before. “The league has clearly been thinking of ways to restructure” its spending on player salaries, the same player rep said. Payrolls have risen considerably since 2015. “If they want to bring in money, they can bring in money. But if they want to get rid of a DP slot they’d have to speak to the union about it, because it’s in the CBA.”
2. Limited free agency was the players’ big win last time around, with veterans 28 years and older and with eight years of MLS service able to shop themselves within the league when their contracts expire. My understanding is that if the sides agree on a new/tweaked CBA early, the free agency threshold would drop to 26 and six.
3. My sense is if anything happens, it will be sooner than later. Just a practical matter, one would think teams would have to know the rulesin order to make informed roster decisions heading into the offseason.
4. Here’s hoping that the Houston Dynamo’s convincing 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final can help the club lure back some of the fans it seems to have lost since winning back-to-back MLS Cups in 2006 and ’07, its first two seasons in Houston. The Dynamo are going to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons this year, and they’re 17th out of 23 teams in attendance despite having a downtown stadium in the USA’s fourth-largest city. Houston is averaging 16,743 fans this year. They drew more than 20,000 per game in the four seasons after BBVA Compass Stadium opened in 2012.
5. Even on TV, the Union’s heartbreak was visceral. Losing three Open Cup finals in five years cuts deep. Still, Philly remains on course for best season yet. That might seem like a backhanded compliment; as in Houston, there’s a sense that Philadelphia, the fifth-largest market in the U.S., has underachieved. Clubs in smaller locales have spent more and have been rewarded for it. It’s fair to criticize chairman Jay Sugarman for that. But the Union also deserve credit for having a long-term plan and sticking to it. That can be difficult to do in professional sports. (Just ask the LA Galaxy).
6. “It goes back to the early days back when I was coaching in the academy,” Jim Curtin, now in this fourth full season as the Union’s coach, said over the phone before the final. “There was a vision to become the top club in MLS in developing the American player.” Curtin started working with the academy’s under-8 squad after retiring as a player, methodically working his way up the ranks alongside many of the kids he coached.
7. The Union qualified for the playoffs just once in Curtin’s first three seasons. He knows other teams would’ve cut him loose. “Oftentimes in sports, everyone says it’s a family,” Curtin said. “Then when things don’t go well and people get fired, the first thing you hear is it’s a business. It’s obviously a little of both, but if you say you want to play young players, you have to give them time. If you lack stability and you have constant changes at the top, at the coaching position, at the youth academy position, it can be a disaster. There are examples of that in this league.”
8. Curtin calls the homegrown crop of Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana, Mark McKenzie, Matthew Real and Auston Trusty The Philly Five. “They were the first crew to come through together and really be on the field contributing big minutes,” he said. “To watch them go up against guys like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, David Villa, [Sebastian] Giovinco week-in and week-out and have success shows that we’re moving in the right direction.”
9. It hasn’t just been the young guys in Philly. With eight goals since being summoned from USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jamaican forward Corey Burke, 26, has been huge. “I also need to stress,” Curtin added, “That Alejandro Bedoya has been our leader in terms of being my voice in the locker room, putting his arm around younger guys when they have tough periods and giving the veterans that kick in the butt they need sometimes during the course of a 34-game season.”
10. Philly’s success this season has reflected well on since-departed sporting director Earnie Stewart, who left last month to become general manager of the U.S. men’s national team. “Earnie was instrumental in implementing a foundation and structure that moved the club forward,” Curtin said. “Sometimes the work of the key people doesn’t get noticed because it goes on behind the scenes. Now you’re starting to see the end product, which is the first team getting results.”
11. Sunday’s likely Supporters Shield decider between the Red Bulls and Atlanta United is getting the buzz, but Saturday’s match between D.C. United and the Montreal Impact might be even more intriguing. Montreal is clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. DCU trails the Impact by five points but has two games in hand. In the tightly packed East, the outcome could determine which team makes the postseason. Montreal played United to a 1-1 draw at home last month.
12. “I think it’s good to have pressure, actually,” Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush said Thursday. “Our group has responded best when there’s been a little bit of that.” Like two weeks ago, when the Impact went to Philadelphia and routed a Union team on a five-game unbeaten run.
13. Bush has an interesting perspective. The Ohio native has been with the Impact since before they joined MLS in 2012. The club has had its share of ups and downs, missing the playoffs in three of its first six seasons, but it also narrowly missed out on the CONCACAF Champions League title in 2015 and an MLS Cup berth the following year. This season, Montreal got off to a 3-10 start under French coach Remi Garde before eventually righting the ship.
14. “Initially, I think the staff didn’t understand the league, didn’t understand the demands of the travel,” Bush said. “But once we had an idea of who the top 11-13 guys were, we became more consistent and started to win the games we needed to. That gave us some confidence.”
15. Garde is the fifth coach Bush has played under in Montreal. “Sometimes you start slow when you bring in a new coaching staff,” he said when asked about the turnover. “But I think clubs like us that are consistently in the playoff hunt are the ones that care the most. In Montreal, the coaching staff, the front office, the management, they care a lot. This club wants to win. I’d rather be somewhere where there’s high expectations than a place where it’s OK to lose.”
16. If D.C. United manages to sneak into the postseason, it will have a lot to do with the partnership between Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. The Impact handled the pair well last month, but the chemistry between the English legend and the pint-sized Argentine playmaker has grown considerably in the weeks since.
17. “Rooney gives a huge boost to Acosta, obviously,” Garde said. “I think you can feel and you can see that there is a stronger relationship between [them]…attention will go on these two players, of course.”
18. Had coffee a few weeks ago with Frederic Lipka, MLS’s VP of player and youth development. It was just a quick meeting, not a formal interview, so I wont quote him here. But a few things stood out:
19. I figured Lipka would arrive trumpeting MLS talent mills’ recent success stories. The Vancouver Whitecaps sold Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for a fee that could surpass $20 million. A few miles away from where we sat, New York Red Bull academy products Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga and Timmy Weah were in camp with USMNT. Instead, I found Lipka take refreshingly clear-eyed.
20. That’s not to say that Lipka isn’t proud of the work that’s been done. He takes the positive feedback he gets from contacts in his native France as a sign that progress is being made. But he also knows there’s a ways to go. Like most of the technical folks I talk to about player development, the big challenge is the numbers. There are talented young players in the U.S. and Canada. There just aren’t enough of them. MLS teams might have two or three prospects per season that they think might eventually make the first team. Maybe one of them gets there. Maybe. In France, the number might be closer to 10 or 11, with one or two or three making it as a pro.
22. The USMNT practiced at the Red Bulls training facility that week, and I mentioned to Lipka how long it took to get there from Manhattan. Even from Red Bull Arena, its 30 minutes away. It drove home the point that the sheer vastness of the U.S. and Canada makes getting talented players into training environments alongside other talented players who live many miles away difficult. When Adams’ mother drove her son to training from Wappingers Falls, New York, it was 90 minute trip each way. Clint Dempsey’s commute to Dallas was double that. Not sure how that obstacle gets overcome.
21. Speaking of prospects, I asked an MLS scout if it was crazy to think that Atlanta United left back George Bello, who made his first start last weekend at 16, had a realistic shot at being part of the national team by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around. He said it wasn’t.
23. Any beat reporter will tell you that the job is easier when you’re covering a winning team. However, the last thing you want is for them to be average. It’s boring. I’d much rather the team I cover be terrible. There’s something about truly dysfunctional organizations that fascinate. Like a car wreck, you can’t look away. What the worst teams have in common is that the rot on the field is almost always a symptom of deeper problems at the top.
Like any league, MLS has had its share of hapless teams. Toronto FC during its first seven seasons. Now-shuttered Chivas USA for its entire existence minus the season Bob Bradley was there. Which teams fit the bill this season? Debating this with a colleague recently, I realized there are more candidates than usual this year. With the 2018 campaign nearing the finish line, my Top 5 Dysfunction Ranking is as follows: Orlando City, San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Minnesota United.
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