MLS could be headed for a work stoppage
FOXBOROUGH — Major League Soccer teams having been training all over the world in preparation for the league’s 15th season. But an impasse in collective bargaining is raising doubts about the season opener, a Seattle Sounders-Philadelphia United match scheduled March 25.
Those who experienced the work stoppage in the North American Soccer League in 1979 are wondering whether both sides are familiar with the history of labor problems in professional soccer.
“Following the NASL’s two most successful seasons, the players struck,’’ recalled local attorney Steve Gans. “In 1977 and ’78, NASL teams had a lot of success and were getting TV contracts. The league had momentum and teams like the Tea Men were getting 30,000 [at Foxboro Stadium] going head to head with a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway.
“Then, the first TV game they had on Channel 4, [the Tea Men] used replacement players against the Philadelphia Fury. There was a crowd of 400 rattling around at Veterans Stadium, which tells you the quality wasn’t good.
“As is always the case, Americans need to see a high standard. The Tea Men had players like Mick Flanagan and Gerry Daly on the team and they were calling in freshmen and sophomores in college to take their place. I was at Cornell and I got a call, but I wouldn’t do it.’’
The official attendance at that Fury-Tea Men game on April 14, 1979, was 3,291. Five days later, the Tea Men and Houston Hurricane performed before a crowd of 653 at the Astrodome.
“Of all the things that led to the NASL’s demise, that [strike] was one of the top five things,’’ Gans said. “Not enough people cared about it to keep the momentum going. The critical mass wasn’t there; there weren’t enough roots set down.’’
Gans finds it disturbing that the NFL Players Association was involved in funding both the NASL strike and the lawsuit that challenged the structure of the MLS. In 2001, four years into the legal proceedings regarding Fraser et al v. Major League Soccer, Gans offered to organize an alternative players union in an attempt to reach a settlement.
“But management believed they were on the way to winning the lawsuit,’’ said Gans, now chief operating officer and general counsel of Jessica’s Biscuit/ecookbooks.com. “And their position was, ‘We’ve spent $10 million on legal fees for something we shouldn’t have had to defend, at least not now, a year into the start of the league, and that money could have gone to the players.’
“The timing [of the suit] was terribly wrong. This was a nascent league. And that inspired enmity and resentment from the owners and is probably making them less agreeable and open to being generous now. Again, that was something that was antithetical to the progression of soccer in this country.
“It’s the Santayana Rule. If we don’t learn from the past, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s a different set of facts, certainly, but a stoppage will set the league back, as it did the NASL, which never recovered.
“I always look to what helps soccer and what retards its growth, and events like this dramatically hurt the sport. There is no way a work stoppage is going to help anything. There’s not enough momentum in this league, and even if there were, you can look at what happened with the NASL, which had tremendous momentum.’’
MLS and the players have agreed to admit a mediator, George H. Cohen, director of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, to the negotiating process. Meanwhile, MLS teams have started competing this week in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Mariner, who has retained his residence in Cambridge, also had an eye on possible bargains among MLS players and consulted with Revolution coach Steve Nicol. The Revolution’s Shalrie Joseph would be high on Mariner’s list, but Joseph has two years remaining on his contract. And with Plymouth’s status in limbo and the club having already overpaid for several players, Mariner’s options are limited, for now.
Plymouth is in the League Championship (Second Division) relegation zone with 30 points (8-20-6). The Pilgrims were sinking fast (15 points in 19 games) when they hired Mariner in December, and they have given him a three-year contract in an attempt to recover.
“It’s very different to what I’ve been used to here,’’ Mariner said. “But this league [MLS] has given me a lot of things I go back to, a lot of the bedrock of what I do is here with Stevie Nic [Steve Nicol].
“I don’t regret going over. I miss America, but football is football — just different degrees of football. I miss the people here, everybody at the club, but you’ve got to move on.’’
How different are the League Championship pressures compared with MLS?
“When you think about the transfer window in January, it’s just 24 hours, seven days a week, no rest,’’ Mariner said. “You’ve got to do your homework. But it’s extremely enjoyable, the supporters have been fantastic, the board has been great.
“It’s the fourth-best league in the world, after the Premiership, La Liga, Serie A. It’s very tough — every single game is a very competitive game. You have some teams that get it on the ground and play and some teams that just launch it. They play percentage football, set pieces, long throw-ins, a constant barrage, and you’ve got to be very organized in what you do. The pressures are different because finishing fourth from bottom [relegation] is a massive amount of money. And, going into the Premier [promotion] is another stratosphere.
“But I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. People asked me for 20 years if would I ever go to England and I said, ‘Well, nobody’s offered me a job.’ I’ve always wanted to be a No. 1, but until this, nobody offered me a job. Stevie and the Kraft family were very supportive. They said, ‘Look, this is an opportunity and you have a go at it.’ ’’
Mariner arrived in the US in 1989 after performing for Plymouth, Ipswich Town, and Arsenal, but he might not have had a shot at MLS without the help of former Harvard coach John Kerr, who brought Mariner in as an assistant in 2003. (Kerr also imported Nicol to be a player-coach of the Boston Bulldogs in 1999.)
Asked about changes in the game, Mariner said, “To certain degrees, science has taken over a little bit, the way players are trained, eating habits, the way they rest. But football is football. Teams are extremely well-organized and what you need is people who are committed to the cause.’’
It is remarkable that Mariner has never been offered a head coaching position in the US.
“Never shut the door on anything, any opportunity,’’ Mariner said. “I love the States. I was here for 20 years and I’d come back.’’