Trying to strike a balance

There is a distinct possibility Major League Soccer players will go on strike Monday if they cannot settle on a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. The problem with this possibility, of course, is there's an absolute certainty American sports fans will not care.

Chances are you didn't even know there was an impending strike, which is to assume you were even aware the MLS season was set to kick off next week.

This isn't a knock so much on MLS as it is the ridiculous notion a strike would do any good for anyone associated with a growing league. A league which has yet to make an impact on the consciousness of most sports fans. While the players are fighting for their rights they need to understand the league is fighting for relevance and a strike would take the league -- which has made great strides in its first 14 years -- right back to square one.

Players contend they aren't asking for much. They want free agency and more guaranteed contracts. Free agency, however, remains the one point owners, who are looking to keep costs down, refuse to budge on.

"There are realities to the business that we're in and unfortunately for too long the business has been one-sided," Los Angeles Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. "We need basic rights if we're going to continue playing. We want rights that are afforded to other players in other countries around the world that we don't have here."

While the intentions of the players are good, their timing is as bad as an employee at Blockbuster making demands during a time when the movie-rental company is hemorrhaging cash. Now, MLS isn't on its last legs -- far from it with three expansion teams joining the league over the next two seasons -- but it also isn't making a profit. Only two of the 15 teams made a profit last year and no more than three or four are expected to be out of the red this season. MLS lost about $400 million in its first decade and has only recently turned the corner after teams began investing in soccer-specific stadiums.

If Major League Soccer can truly be considered a major league sport, then it would be safe to say no players' association in the history of labor negotiations has ever held less bargaining power than the MLS Players Union does. This isn't the NBA or the NFL where you have Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady sitting across the table. This is the MLS where casual sports fans couldn't point out a player in a crowd outside of Donovan or David Beckham.

MLS has often been described as a stateside farm system for homegrown soccer players to improve their skills, get playing experience and possibly one day play for big money in front of large crowds abroad. If that is the case, how much of a drop-off would it be if MLS teams went from showcasing Triple-A quality soccer to maybe Double-A or Class A while their players went on strike? It's not quite the same as replacing Peyton Manning with the quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos.

There is no question MLS players are vastly underpaid in comparison to other professional athletes. There were 26 players who played in MLS games last season and made $21,100. There may have been some vendors in the stadium making more than some of the players on the field. Many players room together in apartments like college students despite playing on national television and in front of sold out crowds. It's important, however, to remember why they agreed to such low wages and don't mind sharing a studio apartment with a couple of teammates during the season: If many of these players want to play professional soccer they have no other choice.

Donovan can talk about how united the players are in their fight for more rights but the fact is he is one of the few players who actually has options if there is a strike. Donovan would likely go back to play for Everton in the English Premier League, where he was for the past 10 weeks on loan, if there is a work stoppage. The sad truth is about 99 percent of the other players in the league would not be able to find similar situations.

How long will players with no other teams knocking on their doors be able to hold their stance once the paychecks stop coming and the benefits cease?

It isn't fair. MLS's single-entity structure -- in which teams are centrally controlled by the league -- is a system rife with one-sided trades and odd allocations with the sole intention of increasing league revenue while keeping costs down. There is no reason why a team that cuts a player should hold that player's rights, yet that's exactly what happens in the MLS. Can you imagine getting fired from your job and having to go through your former employer if you want to get another job?

Allowing out-of-work players an opportunity to freely sign with any MLS team would seem to be a simple and reasonable demand but it is one MLS owners are steadfastly against. They don't even want to open the door on anything resembling free agency or the notion the league operates as 16 separate franchises and not one unified business. As wrong as it may seem, it is perfectly legal. MLS is a company which has its own rules and regulations. If a player doesn't like it, MLS isn't preventing them from finding work elsewhere. The problem for most of its players, however, is there is no elsewhere if they want to play professional soccer.

MLS owners know this and aren't likely to make any compromises. MLS players refuse to see this and will likely and foolishly go on strike. Meanwhile the rest of the country will go on as if they never had a professional soccer league, which could become a reality if both sides don't come to an agreement.

Arash Markazi is a columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com