The Journal de Montreal’s banner sports headline today read (in French, of course): A TRUE MIRACLE. It was referring to the Montreal Impact’s win over Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, in which Montreal’s Cameron Porter scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time to send the Impact through to the semifinals.

While Porter scored the goal, it was made by Minnesota native Calum Mallace, who created it with some defensive hustle, followed by an astonishingly good 65-yard pass to set Porter up. Watch the goal here:

Mallace, scrambling back on defense as Pachuca tried to kill the game, picked up a loose ball and raced up the center of the field. His pass landed perfectly, hitting Porter in stride but landing far enough that the keeper couldn’t come out to clear his lines, and Porter scrambled around the Pachuca right back and poked the ball under the keeper and into the net.

Here’s another view, from behind the goal.

That’s a heck of a pass.

Chicago and Los Angeles are set to kick off the Major League Soccer season on Friday night, but with the opening game just two spaces down on the calendar, and the league’s full Saturday slate barely 72 hours away, no deal has been reached in the ongoing CBA talks between the owners and the players’ union. The two sides negotiated late into the evening in Washington, D.C. last night, with owners and league officials departing before midnight and the players’ side staying past the early morning hours. The players’ frustration was evident; one source on their side was quoted as saying, “It’s shocking. The owners are almost wanting a work stoppage.” by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff.

The central issue of the talks appears to be free agency, with the owners unwilling to consider anything like the open competition for players that has become the norm virtually everywhere else in the professional sports world. At one point yesterday, the owners reportedly offered a modified form of free agency that would have offered freedom to only players who had played at least 10 years with their current team – a rule so draconian that exactly one MLS player, Houston midfielder Brad Davis, would have qualified. Later in the day, several sources reported that the owners had nudged this offer to include players who were at least 28 years old, and had spent at least eight years in the league – but that those players, while able to choose their new team, would have their salary increases capped at 10%.

For comparison’s sake, NHL players are able to reach unrestricted free agency at age 27, and after seven years in the league – and of course there is no limit on what kind of salary increase the player might make. Players may reach restricted free agency earlier, generally around age 25, in which teams must make qualifying offers to retain a right of refusal on any contract offer the player might sign; otherwise, the player becomes unrestricted. In baseball, age is not a factor; players are effectively indentured servants for three years, then have three years in which they may take contract grievances to an arbitrator, after which they may become unrestricted free agents.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it is only in MLS where teams claim a right to players even after contracts expire. In every other sport, it’s taken for granted that once a player’s contract is over, and a team has renounced the ability to sign that player, then the player may sign with any team he chooses. In MLS, this isn’t true.

The few signs of hope on Wednesday morning, after three fruitless days of negotiating, were simply that the season hadn’t yet been delayed. Several sources this morning reported that players still planned to board their scheduled flights for this weekend’s games, leaving open the possibility that a deal could still happen. Montreal played its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal as scheduled on Tuesday – with Minnesota native Calum Mallace providing the key assist late in the game to send the Impact through to the semifinals – and there was no indication that DC United planned to skip its own quarterfinal on Wednesday night.

Assuming players do indeed make their scheduled flights, the decision process could be delayed all the way up until Friday afternoon. But with the sides still so far apart on the free agency issue, very few seemed optimistic that a deal was possible – let alone imminent.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

I have come up with what is surely my craziest theory of all time.

Fact #1: Some have wondered why Major League Soccer has not yet awarded a franchise to Minnesota, or made a decision between the Minnesota United and Minnesota Vikings ownership groups. After all, the Vikings have a deal to play in a new stadium in place, and while United has not announced such a deal, MLS has recently announced franchises without them – specifically to both NYC FC and Miami.

Fact #2: For 40 years, the NFL Player’s Association has been filing lawsuits against the NFL in Minneapolis federal court. The Rozelle Rule – football’s version of the reserve clause – ended there, and free agency for NFL players began there. In 2011, during the league’s latest round of labor strife, once again the players trooped to Minneapolis to sue the league. Minnesota, and in particular Judge David S. Doty (a familiar name to sports-law followers) are seen as labor-friendly courts.

So, here’s my theory: MLS is waiting to award Minneapolis a franchise because to do so would eventually give the players standing to sue the league in Minnesota court.

Crazy? Yes! Wrong? It’s virtually certain to be! Legally ignorant? Of course!

I have enjoyed this interlude.

 

SportiveLogoFinal

This week on the Sportive, we spent a lot of time talking about the KG trade, plus the Wild’s difficult schedule, the Cosetta’s expansion, the movie Beerfest, and other such important topics. Sometimes we think we should plan better, but maybe it’s for the best that we don’t.

At the beginning of 2014, just eight of the 23 eventual members of the USA’s squad for the summer’s World Cup were playing in Major League Soccer. Since then, though, the great repatriation has hardly ceased. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey were in MLS by the time the 2014 season began. Jermaine Jones and DaMarcus Beasley made the trip weeks after the World Cup ended. Two more team members, Mix Diskerud and Jozy Altidore, sealed their own big-money MLS contracts in the 2014-25 offseason – and suddenly far more than half of last year’s national team are now MLS players.

No one would begrudge any of the six their chances, of course. Altidore was the butt of jokes among Sunderland fans, and will instead have a chance to repair his image in Toronto. Jones was the USA’s breakout player at the World Cup, and took his chance to cash in by moving to New England. Beasley wanted to move back from Mexico for one last throw of the dice in America. Dempsey got an offer he couldn’t refuse in Seattle. Roma got $10 million for Bradley, and Bradley got the chance to move back to North America.

Suddenly, the USA has gone from shipping its best players abroad, to paying them big money at home. Dempsey ($6.7 million) and Bradley ($6.5 million) were the Major League Soccer’s two highest-paid players last year, a strike against the notion that the league’s Designated Players are mostly over-the-hill stars from Europe. Jones ($3.25 million) clocked in to the top ten list of highest-paid players after he signed, as well. Even less big-name players, like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi in Kansas City, got big raises – both now make just over $600,000, where Besler used to make $200,000 and Zusi slightly less than $400,000.

Before last year’s World Cup, the Pew Research Center published an infographic, showing where the players at the World Cup played their club soccer. Perhaps not surprisingly, impoverished yet soccer-rich countries shipped the most players abroad; just nine of Africa’s 115 representatives played in their country’s own domestic league, as did just four of the 46 from Eastern Europe and the vast majority of the South and Central American players. At the time, the USA – with 13 players abroad – was solidly in the middle tier, with other first-world but second-class soccer countries like Australia, South Korea, and Japan.

On the other side of the ledger, though, were two countries with interesting lessons for America. One was England, which had only one player abroad – and that the third-string goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, who had only gone as far as Scotland and thus hadn’t even left the borders of his own country. The other was Russia, who uniquely among the 32 nations had brought not a single player who played in a league from outside his home country.

There are similarities between the two leagues. England hosts the world’s highest-profile club league, and the vast television riches collected by the Premier League mean that young English players can stay near home and yet get paid better than anywhere else in the world. Russia, too, has seen an influx of oil money in the domestic game, with big clubs from St. Petersburg and Moscow pouring cash into players’ pockets, keeping them at home to play in one of Europe’s mid-tier competitions. Even rich, highly competitive leagues like Germany (six players abroad) and Spain (nine) sent players outside the country’s borders.

Money pouring in, players wanting to stay home and make big money instead of fighting for scraps overseas – this has to sound familiar to US national team fans. On the one hand, a league like England brings in so many overseas players that national-team fans fret that young players might never get to develop; on the flip side, Russia did so poorly at the 2014 World Cup that the country’s soccer association is seriously considering splitting off the national team into a neo-Red Army side and having them play in the domestic league – in hopes of combating the middling level of competition in the Russian league by building team unity.

The latter worries sound familiar to American fans, who have long argued over whether it was better for American players to go abroad or stay near home. National team coach Jürgen Klinsmann has added fuel to the fire by publicly encouraging young American players to head overseas to test themselves with the big clubs, rather than being content to stay in MLS; his World Cup squad, which included four German-born, German-trained players, was enough to signal to most just how he viewed the American development system.

It’s hard to argue with a player who wants to move home and make big money. But it’s also hard not to look at England and Russia, both of which have struggled mightily on the national stage, and wonder if the combination of money and the lure of home might contribute to the same kind of national-team problems that Russia and England are currently facing.

SportiveLogoFinal

Usually, we have sports to talk about on the podcast. Somehow, though, we avoided them almost entirely on this week’s podcast. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not.

Minnesota United begins pre-season training this week, with trips to Arizona and Brazil planned for summer-like soccer activity. Forget about the advent of spring training and baseball being in the air – soccer’s already going again. Heck, Montreal and D.C. are just two weeks away from each’s first quarterfinal games in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Minnesota won’t start quite that quickly – their first NASL game isn’t until April 11 – but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t be busy. Here’s a quick primer about what has happened with United this offseason – and what to look for in 2015.

Another pivotal year in store for Miguel Ibarra

Ibarra, who will turn 25 in March and thus can no longer properly be called a “youngster,” had virtually his best possible season in 2014, being named league MVP and earning a surprise call-up to the USA national team. His stock has only risen during the offseason, thanks to his inclusion in the January national team training camp, in which he was one of a very few American players praised by USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After making his first start for the national side in a 2-0 USA victory over Panama, it’s fair to say that Ibarra was one of the breakout stars of the two January friendlies, alongside LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes.

Expectations couldn’t be much higher now for Ibarra, who will be at the forefront of virtually anything you see this year from the United marketing department. Can he handle the pressure of being the only US national team player in the NASL, and the face of the Minnesota franchise to boot?

New arrivals, few departures

United has retained virtually the entire core of last year’s team, and added two players to the mix, as well. The team added Northern Ireland international midfielder Jonny Steele, a veteran of both MLS and the second division, as well as attacking midfielder / forward JC Banks from the USL ranks.

Steele, who like center back Tiago Calvano comes to Minnesota via Australia’s A-League, is probably best known in America for his year in Salt Lake City and his two in New York, where he made a total of 77 MLS appearances over three years. Prior to his first-division stint, though, he was one of the second divison’s stalwarts, spending five years with some of Minnesota’s rivals, like Carolina and Tampa Bay. He’s an attacking midfielder, often deployed on the wing but also capable of playing a more central role – and despite a decade in America, is still just 29 years old.

Banks, who like Ibarra is 25, is a Milwaukee native who jumped at the chance to return to the Midwest after four years with Rochester, where he’d become the face of the Rhinos franchise. He too is an attacking player, who can play on the wing or as a striker; he’ll likely begin the season by providing depth at both places.

Questions between the pipes

Erstwhile keeper Matt Van Oekel departed in the offseason for Edmonton, leaving only Mitch Hildebrandt as an experienced option in goal for United. While backup Andrew Fontein has promise, Hildebrandt would be the clear #1 choice.

In both of the past two seasons, United has lived with constant competition – and change – at goalkeeper. In 2013, Daryl Sattler began the season as first choice, before a series of gaffes, and then a hip injury that kept him out for the remainder of the year, derailed his season and handed the starting shirt back to Van Oekel. Last season, Van Oekel battled both injuries and inconsistency, giving Hildebrandt a chance to show off his own skills.

Hildebrandt will be looking to establish himself, but given Manny Lagos’s history of competition in goal, it’d be a surprise if the team didn’t sign at least one more keeper. Cameroonian international keeper Sammy N’Djock is currently on trial with the club, meaning that United could have at least one more available option.

Club looking for depth in the preseason

United is awash in forwards and attacking midfielders, but still needs to fill a few depth roles. Lagos will remember that just two years ago, his team had so many injuries in the spring that he was fielding semi-serious queries about whether he would be ready to play if needed.

The team lost five midfielders in the offseason, as Simone Bracallelo, Floyd Franks, Michael Reed, Omar Daley, and Kentaro Takada all left for other teams. All except Takada and Reed made double-digit appearances last year, with Franks and Daley both starting in a third of the team’s games. Bracalello and Daley’s prowess on the wings has probably been replaced, but the team has yet to bring in any central midfield depth.

Expectations are high

United is expected to be one of the NASL’s top teams again in 2015. They are favorites to again finish with the league’s top record, and to once again compete with New York, San Antonio, and possibly Tampa Bay for league honors. Anything less would be a major disappointment for everyone involved with the club.

With weeks to go, much is still likely to happen in terms of player signings, and as the team starts to play friendly matches we’ll start to get a better idea of Lagos’s thinking in terms of lineups and formations. Minnesota will play Seattle on February 19th and Kansas City on February 28th as part of their Arizona trip, our first two chances to get a sense of how things are looking for United this season – and the first chance of excitement for soccer fans who’ve endured the short soccer winter.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

SportiveLogoFinal

This episode is a milestone for me, because I think it’s the first of 92 in which we actually talked about soccer in a non-let-Marthaler-talk-himself-out kind of way. Thanks, upcoming MLS players’ strike!

Also, at one point we talk about the infamous “fans throwing objects at Chuck Knoblauch” game in the Metrodome. Many claim they were there; all I have to prove that I was also in the stands that night is my ticket stub:

B9pgOD0CEAADYSz

My two ongoing memories of that night were that a) the thing that made Knoblauch run off the field was the fact that somebody hucked a golf ball at him, and b) the panicked reaction of the Twins bullpen to clear the field when, following the stoppage of the game and the lecture from Metrodome PA announcer Bob Casey, a fan launched a wrapped hot dog all the way from the upper deck into the left field corner.

Ah, memories.

The Major League Soccer season kicks off March 6 – well, that’s what the schedule says, at any rate. At the moment, it seems far more likely that some sort of work stoppage, whether player’s striker or owner’s lockout, will force a postponement or cancellation of opening day. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union expired on January 31, and at the moment, the sides seem much too far apart to reach an agreement before taking the field in March.

The main sticking point in the negotiations is the league’s free-agent policy, which is remarkably backwards for this day and age. Even after a veteran player’s contract is up, said player can’t choose which MLS team he’s going to play for; instead, he has to go through the league’s “re-entry” draft. For those who know the whole history of American sports and the reserve clause and Curt Flood, it’s all very old-school; even with this re-entry draft, Major League Soccer is effectively nearly fifty years behind the times.

If you know about Flood, you know that baseball fought free agency, lost, and then later was slapped down in the 1980s for collusion among the owners to reduce the price of free agents. Yet MLS is able to do effectively the same thing, because of the league’s curious structure. Technically, every MLS team is owned by the league and each MLS player signs a contract with the league instead of with a team, a setup that has come to be known as “single entity.” In 2002, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the league, as a quasi-single entity, technically could not conspire with itself and so was able to take collective action with regard to players.

The court, though, deliberately remained vague about whether MLS actually was a true single entity. And since the decision 13 years ago, the league has increasingly started to look like an NFL-style collection of “distinct economic actors,” as they were called by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling in the American Needle vs. NFL case. Teams have begun signing their own Designated Players, a rule introduced in 2007 to allow teams to sign star players to larger contracts – and compete independently for their services, just as any other team would. Read the Toronto Sun’s account of Toronto FC capturing Italian international Sebastian Giovinco – it certainly makes Toronto owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment sound a lot more like a distinct economic actor, not part of a single entity.

The battle for free agency isn’t really about free agency, then. At its heart is really a battle over the single entity. To grant the players free agency would be to set the teams up to compete over not only superstar players but over MLS veterans, and would call into question every one of MLS’s confusing structures – like the allocation order, a priority ranking for deciding which team returning US Men’s National Team players will sign with, or the “discovery claims” process, an absurd mechanism in which teams can submit secret claims on potential MLS players that they might want to sign, or at least call dibs on.

The players, for their part, appear to have had enough of the current system. Before 2010, they didn’t even have the small consolation of the re-entry draft – they had to re-sign or leave the league for other pastures. It’s worth noting, too, that the sums being offered for any players are still remarkably small – the league’s salary cap was $3.1 million last year, and though that doesn’t include Designated Players or a few other minor categories, most teams still are paying their entire squad about the average salary of one major-league baseball player. MLS has just signed a new television contract; it just gave the now-defunct Chivas USA franchise to a group of investors for a $100 million pseudo-expansion fee; and its teams are increasingly spending huge amounts of money to build stadiums. Is it any wonder that the players aren’t buying the league’s claims of financial difficulty, and are ready to demand a fairer slice of the ever-expanding pie?

For their part, the teams still fear the failure of the league above all else. Chivas USA’s folding, at the end of last year, was a sign that even after twenty years, and despite rampant expansion, all is not right with MLS. The offseason has seen a number of league-wide embarrassments, not least the signs that NYC FC – yet to even begin play at Yankee Stadium – appeared to be nothing but a farm team for Manchester City, a distinctive echo of the problems that plagued Chivas on the opposite coast.

All reports indicate that the sides are so far apart on the question of free agency that they’re not even bothering to talk about it. The players say they won’t play without it. The league dismisses the mere idea as completely out of the question. It’s hard to see how this gets worked out. Last time, the sides needed the help of a mediator, and even with that help, we were within a week of opening day before a deal was signed. This time, it looks like that deadline will come and go before anything is decided.

Note: this appeared at SoccerCentric.

SportiveLogoFinal

The app that we use to record the podcast cut out during the recording, twice. We therefore missed out on a half hour of this week’s episode. It was good, too. Sigh.