Dear MLS, Just tell me when the game is on

I’ve stayed away from writing about the labor strife in Major League Soccer to this point for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that, in reality, I’m no different than you. Despite having served as a reporter that covered a team in the league for a while, I don’t have any inside information about what proposals have been put forth, and which side such proposals would be more beneficial for. And like you, I want to see everything settled and games played as scheduled with the best players available.

I can’t tell you that under the current offer, the players are getting screwed, or the owners are giving away too much, etc. So these are purely my thoughts on potential ramifications based on what we’ve all seen in the press. I can’t enlighten you (and the overwhelming majority of folks can’t) about what’s going on behind closed doors.

But while people are free to react any way they desire to a strike if it occurs, I know that it won’t sway me from following the league. I’ve been following Major League Baseball since 1979, and the demolition of a World Series didn’t keep me away. I’ve been following the NHL since about 1981, and losing a whole damn season hasn’t dimmed my passion (hell, I bought season tickets 2 years ago to my favorite team).

And in what may be the most relevant example, I’ve been following the NFL since 1979 and still watch games on Sundays (or Thursdays, or Saturdays, or Mondays) as much as I ever have, despite multiple work stoppages. It really hasn’t changed my view on things, other than in the NHL’s case, to turn even more anger toward that league’s dunderhead commissioner.

So, in reading Bill Archer’s post from early this morning where he highlights a link to a Deseret News story that mentions the possibility of replacement players being used should the MLS players strike (an unsourced conclusion by the story author, by the way), the NFL example came to mind. Many remember that the league’s owners used replacement players early in the 1987 season during a work stoppage – hell, they even made a movie out of it.

I can’t say that I like the idea of replacement players. Something feels unclean about it. And MLS is in a unique position compared to the NFL situation. With some MLS teams still not having their own stadium (**cough** DC United **cough**), opening up the facility for any game might be a losing proposition financially, made worse by reduced attendance (likely) for a game featuring players from the Southern Maryland Yuengling League (SMYL).

But here’s the thing. I’d watch. I’d probably even attend. Part of it is from being so starved to see my team (DC) play after a long offseason. And part of it is that should it come to that nuclear option, those points are gonna count, folks. It draws into question the validity of the season, but if everyone’s in the same boat, then it is what it is. It didn’t keep me from watching the NFL in 1987, so I don’t know why this would be different. I don’t know that Redskins fans celebrated their Super Bowl win at the end of that season any less.

Perhaps the old line about sports fans supporting laundry is true – people will be there for the colors regardless of who is on the field. New players are shuttled in all the time during regular operations. It rarely changes our desire to root for the club. In 1996, beyond a few top players, I wasn’t enough of a soccer fanatic to know who was being brought in for each team – but DC had a team, so from that moment, they were my team.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. The financial positives of replacement-player games may be pretty limited for the owners, some of whom might be in better shape by not having matches at all. And that’s where there is concern for me over the likelihood of a strike by the players – who are likely to get ripped in the mainstream media, chastised by some closer to the game, and who, because of the financial situations for some or many of the league’s teams, may not have the kind of leverage required for a strike action to be effective.

Based on the reporting to this point, we know free agency is a core issue. But we don’t know what’s been offered either way, and we don’t know based on what’s been offered which side has a legitimate reason to feel on the wrong end of things.

Without that, I can’t make a blind decision to support the players in a strike situation, and I can’t say the owners are 100% right, either. But I just know for my own personal choice … if there’s a game, I’m there. My job, as it were, is to support the club when it needs it. And if that team is comprised of SMYL players (no relation to former Vancouver Canuck Stan Smyl), then the club is going to need all the help it can get.

I hope there’s a better answer out there to all this than a strike – I still truly believe there won’t be one. I also don’t believe the theory that a strike will kill the league – at least not immediately. But whatever does come from this, and whatever side you happen to be on, I think it’s fair to say that the end result from whatever is decided needs to be what will facilitate the league’s viability and growth over the next 15-20 years. Whichever side wins this battle, the sides have to be together in winning the war later.

I don’t know how we get there. And if a strike is a painful part of it, then so be it.

But when game time arrives, I’ll be there.

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14 thoughts on “Dear MLS, Just tell me when the game is on

  1. Buzz Carrick recently addressed the idea of replacement players, and in his opinion, most fans wouldn’t notice a difference. Hell, they could even bring in more foreign players for a year. The quality of play could conceivably go up.

  2. When MLB went on strike in 1994, and they said they were going to come back with replacement players for 1995, only the die-hards said they wouldn’t come back (and eventually they did anyway). The casual fan just watches it solely for the love of competition or because it’s entertainment. For this league, there really is no true superstar where people would say, “If he ain’t playin’, I ain’t watchin’ or goin’!” A majority of people support the shirt. In European football, how many players actually stay in one place for 3 or 4 years? You’re supporting your club no matter who they are. I’ve never seen a Union match, and, honestly, I don’t care who suits up for them. I just want to watch the match and see the team from my town succeed. If they’re replacements or not, I just want to watch and cheer. I’m also worried about what kind of a black eye this will put on my team. If Game 1 doesn’t go off on Thursday, how will the casual fan in Philly, who may show a little interest in MLS, react? Will they think that it’s a Bush League operation that they shouldn’t spend their money on? I don’t want my MLS team, the team that was able to get its own stadium with taxpayer money, to become the Montreal Expos. I want the Union playing on Thursday in some form. I don’t care who suits up.

    Sorry for the long rant. By the way, Aaron, do you “Rock The Red”, by any chance?

  3. Aaron’s a Caps fan, yes, but yeah, I’m a season-ticket holder for the rest of this regular season. Too rich for my blood next year. In fact, I think they wanted my blood.

  4. i root for my club. not a fake, cheap, imitation of my club. no way will i ever attend a match with scabs. i have to much respect for my club to watch it’s crest be dragged through the mud like that.

  5. It could go much like the NFL strike and the replacement teams, with players drifting back in over time. The union gave up and it took several more years before it recovered status.

    IMO, given the financial shape of MLS and the general state of the economy, that is the likely outcome of any strike (unless someone is planning to pay the MLS players from a strike fund we don’t know about.)

  6. The DC United stadium thing is crap all around. A team that brings home cups almost every year might have to move, yet the Red Cows get a brand new beautiful pitch, and because of what? The playoff system let them have a chance at the cup only to be embarrassed?

  7. Most of the MLS players are getting paid crap wages…makes me wonder how badly-paid the scabs might be? Who knows? Maybe MLS will charge players and actually start making money…

    whatever, I won’t be paying to watch.

  8. True.

    Also true: MLS exists to this day (and, thusly, provides jobs to players), because patient billionaires and the multi-millionaires they let hang around are following a realistic business plan. The players need to buy into that plan. The owners need to provide conditions of service that respect the human psyche, the needs of which may not be served by “play where we put you and eat feces thereafter.” The middling-level MLS player needs to know where his bread is buttered, and the owners need to realize they have no product without such players.

  9. It was banged into my head at an early age to never cross a picket line and I don’t intend to do so now. Scabs of any kind just make me wretch.

  10. That makes sense, since professional athletes’ players unions in the US are not solely focussed on self-interest. Instead, they’re well-integrated into the national culture of organized labor, and routinely go out of the way to offer their support and solidarity when other unions strike, especially those associated with the events in which they participate such as stadium workers, teamsters, etc.

    Oh, wait — not a word of that is true. Sorry.

    I can’t consider professional athletes’ unions to be analogous to, or as deserving of sympathy as, the UAW, UMWA, SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, or any other union in the US.

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