When The MLShit Hits The Fan

Major League Soccer’s (MLS) 2014 season will kick off this Saturday and, as expected, the league has been hard at work hyping up opening weekend. Unfortunately for the league, a few factors are looking to rain on the MLS parade: renewed competition from the North American Soccer League (NASL) and, more urgently, the impasse between MLS’s Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA).

PRO announced this morning that they have decided to lock out referees from the PSRA this opening weekend. The league will resort to its backup plan of non-union (re: scab) referees composed of foreign referees, former MLS officials, and refs from other leagues. The PRO even held a mini-camp for potential temporary replacements last week. Things could go well enough with no one noticing any changes…or they could be utterly disastrous.

Members of the PSRA voted 64 – 1 in favor of a strike back in February and talks on the group’s first collective bargaining agreement with the PRO earlier this week failed. The PSRA also filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board claiming bad-faith bargaining and accusing members of PRO with making threats against members of the PSRA.

From Dave Zirin at The Nation:

The Professional Soccer Referees Association, otherwise known as the refs union, has been attempting to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement in league history. The amount of money that separated the two parties is not vast, estimated between $440,000 and $1 million for the lifetime of the deal. The main financial issue was that in recent years, MLS mandated far more trainings for referees to improve the quality of officiating. The refs, however, were not compensated for the extra hours.

The greater issue, however, was political. It was the fact that the refs union refused to sign a no-strike pledge. As the MLS league negotiator Peter Walton said, “Since they will not give us a guarantee they will not go on strike immediately prior to our match we are left in a position where we must use replacement officials.”

Some of the more cynical comments about this situation that I’ve read in various articles claim this was a move by the PRO for publicity. All publicity is good publicity and the issue will be resolved in due time but only after a good amount of publicity about this situation makes a few rounds.

Steven Goff has provided the best coverage of the situation in his Soccer Insider column at the Washington Post.

On a smaller but potentially larger problem down the road, NASL commissioner Bill Peterson called out Garber and the MLS for some questionable moves regarding the league’s expansion fever.

Just a few days ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber hyped up Texan cities Austin and San Antonio as a possibility for the home of a future MLS team. That news came weeks after David Beckham announced plans for his own MLS franchise in Miami, Florida, all of which prompted a few comments from NASL commissioner Bill Peterson during a press conference call early last week.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson (Dave Martinez, Empire Of Soccer)

The NASL has teams in San Antonio, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City and Miami…all cities where MLS will expand or has looked into expanding. MLS will likely be at 24 teams total by 2020.

Peterson originally announced that the reborn NASL (the original league folded in 1984) would not compete directly with MLS and, instead, focus on building its own separate fan base and focus on creating a system of promotion/relegation after some growth.

His tune changed immediately last week when MLS began digging footholds in his league’s turf.

From Franco Panizo of Soccer By Ives:

“Can somebody tell me, is he going to have 32 teams or 42 teams?” Peterson asked rhetorically of Garber without mentioning him by name. “How many is he going to have? Every day he announces another city. I’ve got to send him an update of where we’re going so he can announce that next.”

What few, if anyone, persons have pointed out is how this expansion echoes the past. The original NASL was a closed league (as MLS is today) that eventually fell apart due to rapid expansion among other factors…including some that are beginning to appear in MLS (expansion, union disputes, etc.).

Naturally, there’s been plenty of speculation of where this road will eventually lead to; a second American Soccer War, an implosion of the MLS, a temporary setback to MLS domination, etc. Whatever the final result may be, we’ll look back at 2014 as simply a pebble in MLS’s shoe or the first sign of the levee breaking.

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