The new MLS season doesn't start until March 6 (we hope -- more on this later), but the offseason has already taken on a different feeling.
With the players back on the training field for preseason camps and reporters lurking around looking for stories, the time has come for the focus on the current collective bargaining agreement talks to go into overdrive.
The MLS news ticker delivered a few interesting non-CBA items over the past week, including the signing of a handful of notable names like Toronto FC's acquisitions of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. But as long as MLS owners and players remain without a signed agreement, the possibility of a potential work stoppage will dominate the conversation.
From a fan perspective, there's nothing worse than the possibility that the start of the season might be delayed. Even if the public backs the players in their bid to secure the type of free agency enjoyed by their counterparts around the world, the notion that we might not get our soccer is difficult to swallow.
Particularly when one considers the type of damage MLS might face in the battle for relevance if a work stoppage comes to pass.
There will be no lack of criticism should MLS be delayed this year, as the league already struggles to pry away attention from the more established leagues in the American sports scene. What little attention MLS gets during a portion of the year dominated by the NBA, NHL, MLB and the year-round news cycle of the NFL would either turn decidedly negative or disappear altogether.
Back in 2010, the players put forth a multifaceted platform of demands which included free agency but also considered minimum salaries, the lack of guaranteed contracts and quality-of-life elements. In the public sphere, the multiple requests from the players appeared to be a convoluted message that failed them in the fight against the owners for the hearts and minds of MLS fans.
Five years on, with the league growth of the past five years increasing the size of the audience, the players are out of the gates with a clear and consistent demand: free agency. Though there are certainly other issues on the table between the two parties, it's free agency alone that will dominate the PR battle. The players want it but the league fears what it might do to a conservative business model that has served it well for 20 years. What that means for the season opener on March 6 is yet to be seen, but at the very least the two sides have plenty of time to hammer out an agreement.
This is where the rhetoric comes in. Statements from players, both high-profile (like Michael Bradley) and long-serving (like Todd Dunivant and Dan Kennedy) are picking up, with the message being that the players are ready to strike if MLS owners refuse to budge on free agency. It would be easy to see it as so much bluster at this point in the process, but there's legitimate reason to think the players are intent on making amends for what they see as a poor deal the last time around.
"Should we get to a point before the season where things and negotiations aren't where they should be, we are ready to strike, and we are united as a group to make real progress in terms of the way players get treated in this league," Bradley told reporters at USMNT camp.
"Ready to strike" is the consistent refrain, one we're likely to hear from now until the March deadline.
Maloney is part of Chicago makeover
Elsewhere, the remaking of the Chicago Fire continues unabated. Frank Yallop's project now includes Scotland midfielder Shaun Maloney, unveiled on Monday morning as the club's latest designated player. Because Chicago's DPs have been mostly "miss" rather than "hit" since the 2007 introduction of the rule, Maloney will need to prove himself at Toyota Park. The list of Chicago failures includes Nery Castillo, Sherjill MacDonald and Juan Luis Anangono, none of whom made much of an impact in the Windy City.
With no offense meant, Maloney embodies a DP signing of a midlevel club in MLS when considering that this offseason has delivered some high-profile signings. There is a growing perception of a division between the top spenders in MLS and the rest of the league, especially when Toronto signs a player like Giovinco only for a club like Chicago to turn to Maloney.
Giovinco has Conte's blessing
Speaking of Giovinco, there couldn't be a marquee signing in MLS without a follow-up from famous foreign coaches. Italy national team head coach Antonio Conte, formerly Giovinco's manager at Juventus, spoke about the attacker's decision with Italian sports daily Tuttosport.
Rather than lament the move, as some name managers have in the past (Roy Hodgson's disapproval of Jermain Defoe's decision to join MLS comes to mind) when talented players were wooed by the North American dream, Conte painted the choice as a no-brainer. Focusing mostly on the money Giovinco will make, Conte backed the jump, even going so far as to say he would have made the same choice during his playing career if he had been given the chance.
The takeaway quote -- "Players will elbow each other to go to MLS" -- is the type of statement that should rightfully give American and Canadian fans the warm and fuzzies. Conte is just one coach and shouldn't be held up as some sort of all-knowing expert, but his words reveal the changing image of MLS abroad.
A message of support from Conte doesn't mean Giovinco will definitely get called up by the Italy national team while playing for TFC, but it does hint that he won't be disqualified, either. As sad as it might be, that's progress.