Whether it's the increased talent in the league, a highly successful format change for the postseason, or the addition of more expansion teams, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber sees a wave of momentum heading into this weekend's MLS Cup final.
That momentum could all come to a halt in a hurry, though, if the league doesn't reach a labor deal with its players before the start of the 2020 season. Negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement are set to take the offseason spotlight.
"We and our players are focused on doing everything possible to reach an agreement that'll make sense for ownership and makes sense for the players,'' Garber told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. "You know, those conversations are ongoing and they've been productive. As the league continues to grow, more opportunity exists for everyone and more issues exist that we have to manage as the league develops.''
MLS will celebrate the conclusion of its 24th season Sunday when the Seattle Sounders host Toronto FC in the league championship game. It's been a banner year for the league on the field with the debut of FC Cincinnati, the announcement of St. Louis and Sacramento as the latest expansion franchises to come on board starting in 2022 and a dazzling MVP season from LAFC's Carlos Vela that rewrote the record book.
Carrying that momentum into 2020 and beyond will require a labor agreement with players who appear more unified and more willing to walk out than in 2015 when a strike was averted by just a couple of days.
Players want to see another bump in salary. They want more free agency and increased choice in where they play. They also want the arduous travel of a long season eased by more charter flights allocated for teams.
Those are just some of a long list of issues for the sides to work through.
"It would be inconceivable to think we would be negotiating about charter travel in our last agreement or the one prior to that, because it wasn't something that anybody thought could ever be contemplated and here we are. It's a subject that will be an element of bargaining,'' Garber said. "We have all sorts of new approaches to how we're going about signing our players and managing our rosters with Targeted Allocation Money as an example, something that wasn't even part of our discussions in our last agreement. I look at momentum and success as creating opportunity for all and at the same time representing ownership and reaching an agreement that is fiscally responsible.''
The MLS Players' Union has established a fund to help players should there be a strike and advised them to start putting money aside in the event of a work stoppage. Garber said he doesn't see those moves as ominous signs of what is to come.
"Nothing has changed in my mind,'' he said.
Garber touched on several other topics.
He said the move to a single-game format for the MLS Cup playoffs has been a resounding success, both in the quality of the games and for television ratings. The playoffs will be capped by a sold-out final Sunday. More than 69,000 spectators are expected, which would be the second-largest crowd for an MLS final.
"We're excited about it because our fans are excited about it,'' Garber said. "They really believe in this idea of every player needs to put it all out on the field in every single game because if you don't win, you go home.''
Also, with Sacramento and St. Louis already announced, the league plans one more expansion club to bring the league's total to 30 teams. Garber said that does not need to be announced before the end of the year, but the 30th team would likely start in 2022 with the other two expansion clubs. While Phoenix and Las Vegas have been mentioned as potential options, Charlotte appears to be the leader.