RSL Cup blog taking a long much needed break

I've been a fan of Real Salt Lake since it joined MLS and took to the field in 2005, and I've been a fan of MLS since it began in 1996.

However, over the past couple of years, and especially the last several months, I've began to see the ugly underbelly of this sport. Most likely it has always been there and I was just too naïve to see it, but I cannot not see it anymore.

I'm taking a much needed break from the sport of soccer. I may or may not be back. I may or may not update this blog, I don't know. It would be a shame since I've had it up and running for almost 10 years, but the fun I once had just isn't there any more.

Hopefully you fare better.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seattle streamers for season opener against Union

Nice green color against the grey skies. Gotta love the city background too.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Anti-Seattle banner

You gotta love this banner that a San Jose fan came up with last year.

Portland Timbers Army

Although not in the league yet (they will be joining in 2011) the fans of the Portland Timbers already put to shame some of the MLS fans when it comes to tifo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lack of D.C. stadium plan upsets Garber

( 3-23-10)

NEW YORK -- MLS commissioner Don Garber is angry that District of Columbia officials haven't come up with a plan for a new stadium for D.C. United.

"I just can't understand why we can't make progress in D.C., and what more do we need to do to have the politicians in that community understand the relevance of that club, it's deep commitment to the community," Garber said during a conference call Tuesday to discuss the league's labor contract.

Garber criticized the area politicians, saying the league made a commitment to the area "with no commitment in return."

RFK Stadium, former home of the NFL's Redskins and baseball's expansion Senators and the Nationals, opened in 1961. It's current capacity is about 45,000. Garber wouldn't say what would happen if the team doesn't get to leave for a new home in the area.

"It's premature to say we would move it," he said, adding "if they don't get a stadium ... that team will not be able to succeed and we would have to address what that means."

His displeasure was clear.

"I am tired of going down to meetings and getting my back slapped and [going to] faux press conferences with mayors and local city officials to have them backtrack on that because they can't get out of their own way," he said. "And quite frankly, it's frustrating. And at some point, we are doing to have to do something about it."

New York, 2010 season

"Our Home, Your Hell" banner at the opening of Red Bull Arena vs Brasil's Santos.

Chicago's Section 8, 2009 season

Chicago city flag re-creation done for the playoff game against RSL on November 14th.

DC United's famous Barra Brava, 2009 season

A salute to Ben Olsen.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Players still left without freedom of movement

(by Leander Schaerlaeckens 3-22-10)

Amid the cheers, whoops and hoorahs emanating from all involved with Major League Soccer after Saturday's collective bargaining agreement between the league's owners and the MLS Players Union that avoided a work stoppage, an uncomfortable if unavoidable conclusion slowly materialized as the dust settled: The players didn't get what they fought for.

While the players would speak no ill of what they consider progress in their fight for more freedom, it is becoming abundantly clear that the players made little progress on the one thing that truly mattered to them: rights.

We don't know the exact wording of the new CBA yet -- that isn't expected until sometime in the coming week -- but the players didn't win the free-agency rights they sought.

"Everybody recognizes that [free agency] was the elephant in the room," MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a conference call held Saturday to announce the agreement. "Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements but they will not be free agents within the league."

In order to get the players to agree to a new five-year term, owners sweetened the deal with some extra money here and there. More contracts will be guaranteed, unilateral team option years in contracts will be limited to two, and minimum salaries and the salary cap are said (but not yet confirmed) to be going up. More money will also be reaching the players from other, as of yet unknown, places.

But the epicenter of the negotiations was that the players wanted rights and said they cared less about money. In the end, they took more money and gained very little in terms of free agency.

"These negotiations were always about player rights," MLSPU executive director Bob Foose said on the conference call (several attempts to later reach the players' union were unsuccessful). "Players' ability to move freely within the league will be greatly improved."

Greatly improved? Not really. From what we now know, it appears that players whose contracts have expired or have been canceled will be entered into a re-entry draft, most likely to be held every December.

"It's a way for a player to be exposed to every other team in the league," Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad said. "There was a form of free agency we were looking for. There were a lot of concerns. One of the big ones was that when you get waived you should be free. If a team doesn't want you they shouldn't get any compensation for you if another team wants you. They met us halfway on some of the rights stuff or ended up giving us what was fair."

In the same vein as Conrad's remarks, many spoke of an increased flexibility for the players. But simply shackling a surplus or unwanted player to another team doesn't give the player any more rights than he had before. While one team won't be able to hold a player hostage anymore, another team will. His new team is just as likely to offer him an unfair deal or not bother to offer him one at all -- holding on to his rights until it has found a use for him, found another team to offer adequate compensation or keep the player in perpetuity. The highest bidder will never be found, as there will never be more than one.

The whims of whoever acquires the rights of a player will still rule. The re-entry draft is closer to the status quo than it is to free agency. Union objectives like the free movement of workers, honoring the rules of international soccer, and gaining the same rights as soccer players the world over were not met.

In truth, free agency was probably never really on the table. MLS has spent too much time and money defending its single-entity concept, which gives the league a de facto bye in the free-agency battle.

Garber said it in plain English: "MLS was founded on the principle that our owners would not be competing against each other for a player's services. When we think of free agency, it is that concept of internal bidding. There will not be internal bidding for a player's services."

So long as that claim wasn't made inoperative, the players were never going to attain their ultimate goal. And they clearly haven't yet garnered the clout to pull it off. So while they may delight in the agreement they've come to, the outcome can't possibly be hailed as a victory for them. They improved their lot to be sure, but win they didn't.

And in addition to their core objective, the players abandoned something else too: one of their own.

Alone among the rubble of the many battles fought to come to this new agreement stands Dave van den Bergh.

In November, FC Dallas decided not to exercise its unilateral option on van den Bergh, who had commanded a well-above-average salary but also came second in the league in assists, was vital in his team's last-ditch run on the postseason and played in every game. Yet it made him no offer. It was well within its rights to do so. Van den Bergh hadn't meshed well with coach Schellas Hyndman, who had also announced his intention to build a younger team, seemingly dooming the 33-year-old van den Bergh.

It's what Dallas did next that was the problem.

Van den Bergh's play, which he maintains he'll be able to keep up for several years more, attracted plenty of interest. The Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders and especially Los Angeles Galaxy all inquired as to the option of trading for van den Bergh. All were scared off by FC Dallas' outlandish demands. (MLS claims that van den Bergh was twice offered -- once by Dallas and once by Los Angeles -- a contract at a reduced wage but that he refused to entertain the offers.)

So van den Bergh, one of the league's most recognizable players, won't be saved even by the re-entry draft as it is allegedly retroactive only to players dropped since Feb. 1, 2010. Van den Bergh's option was dropped in November. He's stuck.

"He is the last guy hung out to dry out there and it's unfortunate," Conrad said of van den Bergh. "We tried to solve all the problems."

Leaning over a plate of chicken-fried steak, which he barely touched, in Irving, Texas, a few weeks ago, the usually chipper van den Bergh looked gaunt and tired, a man laboring under the crushing weight of limbo. Limbo that his employer and its overarching infrastructure were quite happy to let him fester in forever.

Van den Bergh's plight, and every other player's nightmare, is not an aberration. He didn't fall between the cracks ripped into the earth when a new system leveled an old one. Even if van den Bergh's situation is resolved in the near future, his is a problem that several have faced and one that could haunt others.

Any team that wants to treat its players like FC Dallas did van den Bergh can still do so. And therein lies the crux. Until the players can seek employment without restrictions, they haven't achieved their goals.

"We've made some good progress and it's a step in the right direction," counters Conrad. "We knew we wouldn't get everything we wanted.

"Hopefully in five years' time [when the just-agreed upon CBA expires] the next group of guys will be able to step up and go for what's next." That's what really happened here. The current crop of MLS players left the real fight for another day, for another generation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Don doodles

A new classic. Commisioner Don Garber and Landon Donovan shake hands after a 5 year deal is struck in the MLS/Players Union contract negotiations. Who knew the Don could doodle so well, thems some mighty fine galactic star thingys.

MLS, union sign 5-year labor deal

( 3-20-10)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Major League Soccer and its players have signed a five-year labor contract that avoided a strike scheduled before the MLS season opener on March 25.

Negotiators began intensive talks Thursday in Washington, D.C., and the deal was signed shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday.

"This can all be a positive relationship going forward," Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan said. "Going forward we're going to have a real relationship with the league as opposed to being combative at times."

MLS Players Union head Bob Foose said a majority of players will receive guaranteed contracts for the first time and there will be increased player rights within the league when contracts expire.

"From our perspective, these negotiations were always about players' rights," Foose said, with his members wanting to bring their rights "more in line with leagues from around the world."

"Soccer is a global game and we were adamant that these changes were necessary to make MLS as competitive as possible," Foose said.

Talks went overnight until 2 a.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday, with players watching NCAA tournament games.

"This is a great way for Major League Soccer to start its season," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.

Management was opposed to free agency within MLS, which has negotiated all contracts as a single entity on behalf of its teams since play began in 1996. MLS said players always had the option of signing with clubs overseas.

"Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements but they will not be free agents within the league," Garber said.

Instead, there will be a re-entry draft for players whose contracts end, options are declined or who reach a certain age.

"We think we have made some real improvements in players' ability to move," Foose said.

The union said March 11 it would strike if an agreement wasn't reached before March 25. Player representatives flew in to attend talks, including Donovan, the league MVP. The Los Angeles Galaxy star completed a 10-week loan to Everton last weekend and said he might return to England in the event of a strike.

"It was not fun. It was tiring," Garber said, "but it was very productive."

The talks were supervised by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Garber credited Cohen and his staff for helping forge a deal. Cohen said he tried to reach agreement on smaller issues to build momentum and get the sides to realize "Western civilization does not hang in the balance."

Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal amount make above and below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

Garber said Seattle and Toronto were the only profitable MLS teams last year.

"We also collectively agreed that we need to grow our television ratings and attendance," Garber said. "Perhaps five years from now we have a league that's operating with all teams at a profit."

A joint player-management task force will come up with proposals to improve the league and player development.

"What I learned in this process is the players have some pretty darn good ideas," Garber said, "We'll try to find ways that we could make money together. We'll find ways that they could have a greater say in discipline."

A strike would have disrupted planning to some extent for the U.S. national team ahead of the World Cup in June. While most of the players on the 23-man roster are likely to be selected from European clubs, a delay in the start of the MLS season would have left the U.S.-based players with no matches to get sharp ahead of the start of national team training camp in mid-May.

The league notified the union that medical, dental and vision insurance would expire March 31 in the event of a strike, and players would have to continue coverage under the federal COBRA program. Life insurance would end on the start date of a strike, and players could covert to individual coverage.

"I think it's been a very productive few weeks. I think we're all mainly excited that we get to play soccer this year, and I think we're all very proud of what we've accomplished here," Donovan said. "This is not a one-day celebration. This is a start of many, many good things to come for many years for our players in our league."

New MLS deal avoids player strike

(by Michael C. Lewis 3-20-10)

Soccer fans, rejoice.

Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer have averted a potentially devastating player strike just days before their new season begins, with league owners agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement that gives the players much of what they wanted while stopping short of allowing unrestricted free agency.

"Everybody's relieved," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando, one of two RSL union representatives who helped negotiate the deal in Washington. "The players are satisfied with the deal it's a structure we can always grow on."

Agreement on the new five-year deal Saturday will allow the upcoming season to begin as scheduled, with the new Philadelphia Union expansion team playing the Seattle Sounders on national television on Thursday night.

RSL will open defense of its MLS Cup championship at San Jose on Saturday. The team will play the Sounders in its home opener April 10.

Players had threatened to strike if a new deal was not reached by midnight Tuesday, jeopardizing a season that many view as crucial to the league, with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa expected to heighten domestic interest in soccer and the New York Red Bulls planning to open their new $220 million stadium in suburban New Jersey.

But the players wound up winning concessions on their major concerns after several days of late-night negotiations that included about two dozen players - RSL's Nat Borchers and Rimando, among them - and a federal mediator.

Union executive director Bob Foose said the new deal will afford players "significantly" increased compensation, more guaranteed contracts based on age and years spent in the league, and greater freedom to change teams within the league.

That last provision won't come in the form of free agency, though, something the owners opposed out of fear it would lead to an escalation of salaries that would doom the league.

Rather, players who are released by a team or otherwise out of contract will be able to enter a "re-entry" draft sometime after each season, during which other teams can select them and presumably negotiate new contracts. Under the old agreement that expired Jan. 31, teams could release players but still control their rights, limiting their freedom to join other teams.

"I give the union credit for a unique concept," league commissioner Don Garber said.

Officials did not disclose many other details on a conference call announced the deal, saying they need time to finalize them before announcing them to the public.

But Foose and Rimando said the players are satisfied that they moved the league closer to the global standard for their sport, while appreciating that owners were willing to make changes only in what Garber called an "evolutionary way, rather than a revolutionary way."

Since its creation, MLS has operated under a unique "single-entity" structure, in which the league - not individual teams - owns the contracts of players, in an effort to keep costs down and ensure its long-term survival. That will not change with the new deal.

Now, "it's time for all of us to get focused on the task at hand, which is building the sport of soccer in North America," Garber said.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

RSL owner: MLS could crumble if players strike

(by Michael C. Lewis 3-18-10)

While his players prepare for a strike, Real Salt Lake's Dave Checketts has joined a growing chorus of Major League Soccer owners and investors who warn that such a move would be "absolutely devastating" to the league.

"I don't know how Major League Soccer survives it, to be honest," Checketts said. "It's that serious."

The players are ready to strike at midnight Tuesday, according to multiple sources and news reports, if they cannot agree with the league on a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired Jan. 31.

That deadline is barely two days before the new Philadelphia Union expansion team is scheduled to open the season against the Seattle Sounders on national television --and just four days before RSL begins defense of its MLS Cup championship at San Jose on March 27.

"It's definitely a tense time," RSL defender Nat Borchers said.

Yet the players insist they won't abandon their pursuit of what they call basic rights. Primarily, they want greater freedom to change teams and more guaranteed contracts, and voted 383-2 recently to authorize a strike.

Owners maintain that either concession would hurt them financially and jeopardize the stability of the league that has fought for years to build a firm footing on the fringe of the U.S. sports landscape.

"We're basically sticking to our guns," said Borchers, one of two union representatives on the team. "We've been very reasonable in the things we've been seeking. We're not going to start the next season without a new collective bargaining agreement. We're not willing to accept the status quo."

Both sides have agreed that negotiations have yielded little progress, and a strike would disrupt a season that many view as crucial to the continued development of soccer in the United States.

Interest in the game is expected to be heightened by the World Cup in South Africa this summer, while the league expects not only to add the Union as its 16th team but also witness the opening of the New York Red Bulls' new $220 million stadium in suburban New Jersey.

"If we don't play this year," Checketts said. "It's not going to be in anybody's best interest."

Checketts is among several owners and investors who have spoken up in recent days, after keeping quiet during weeks of negotiations. He said he and his partners have sunk about $200 million into building RSL over the past six years -- that includes the money they needed to help finance Rio Tinto Stadium -- and that most owners are still losing money.

Even RSL lost money during its title-winning season last year, he said.

"We have to have an attitude of continuing to build the league -- by everybody," he said.

Yet Checketts also sounded an ominous tone when he said that a strike would unleash a "whole streamroller of events" that he believes the players have not considered.

"I want to say to my players, make certain you guys understand the implications" of a strike, he said. "Make sure you understand how we might respond, and make sure you understand what it might create. ... In a sport that has come as far as we have, struggling for relevance, this just seems like the absolutely worst time to have a work stoppage."

Sandy mayor: MLS strike would hurt my city

(by Martin Renzhofer 3-18-10)

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan describes Dave Checketts as a straightforward, up-front kind of guy.

"He says what he thinks," Dolan said. "I take him at his word."

So, Dolan believes the Real Salt Lake owner when he says that the future of Major League Soccer looks bleak if the players go on strike Tuesday, barring a breakthrough in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

Dolan says he also understands the potential economic impact on his city -- home to RSL's Rio Tinto Stadium -- should a work stoppage occur.

"We know it makes an economic impact when people come from out of town and fill up our hotels and restaurants," he said.

In one sense, Dolan calls the labor standoff "a typical situation" between the players and management.

But both Dolan and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon expressed disappointment that the situation has reached this point. A strike, both agreed, would create a serious economic hardship to businesses surrounding Rio Tinto Stadium.

"It would not be very good," Corroon said. "For Sandy, it is very important. The surrounding restaurants and retailers appreciate having them there."

MLS players recently voted 383-2 in favor of a strike should the owners not concede what the athletes call their basic rights, including more freedom to change teams and more guaranteed contracts.

The players set the strike deadline for midnight Tuesday if the sides cannot agree with the league on a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired Jan. 31.

"I don't know how Major League Soccer survives it, to be honest," Checketts told The Salt Lake Tribune . "It's that serious."

"If we don't play this year," Checketts said. "It's not going to be in anybody's best interest."

The looming strike deadline comes four days before Real Salt Lake's season-opening match at San Jose. RSL is the defending MLS champion.

"I'm surprised at this stage of negotiations that they haven't come together to work something out. This doesn't help anybody," said Dolan, who was a driver of the building of Rio Tinto Stadium and the political battles that preceded it.

Dolan said part of the blow of not having RSL games could be made up by other events, such as concerts. But the stadium was built on a foundation of 15-20 RSL regular season and exhibition games per year.

Sandy is working up a study on the stadium's financial impact.

Corroon, an RSL season-ticket holder, agreed with S.L. County's Debt Review Committee, which voted to oppose the stadium.

"The stadium has been built," he said. "We have a successful soccer team in Salt Lake and we want them to be successful. Salt Lake County is not involved anymore. We'd all be disappointed if we lost the team."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How much damage would players' strike have on the growing MLS?

(by Steve Davis 3-15-10)

Being a soccer fan in this country was never easy. Supporters and advocates have always put up with a lot.

Their sport was a punch line on so many media platforms through the years. Until recently, watching matches was a crapshoot, a scavenger hunt of cable systems, pay-per-view options and supporters' bars.

Even when Major League Soccer provided a top-tier professional association domestic fans could call their own, the national footprint was thin and clubs fumbled frequently in customer service as they found their footing.

Now, just as their days of being marginalized seem mercifully past, will loyal MLS supporters be asked to put up with a players' strike? Such a notion falls squarely into the province of "You can't be serious?"

MLS is less than two weeks from beginning what looks like a fantastic campaign, with 16 teams filling out the largest field to date. Wrapped into the package is a spectacular new arena in the nation's largest media market, New York. Expansion Philadelphia seems set to join Seattle and Toronto on the fast track to big-time soccer city status. It will all play out against the backdrop of a World Cup, which always reinforces interest among casual sports fans.

It all begins in less than two weeks, that is, unless a strike scythes down the momentum. Frustrated members of the players' union have set a March 23 deadline. Without a new collective bargaining agreement in place at 12:01 a.m., two days before Philadelphia and Seattle are set to meet in the 2010 league opener, the players apparently will walk.

Last Thursday, the union announced that players had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Until late last week, chances that ongoing labor discord would deteriorate into an actual work stoppage seemed like so much distant danger, like damage to your home from heavy storms. But as some residents along the battered East Coast know all too well, the bad moment occasionally does come, and with a sure menace.

The big picture here is a house of mirrors; it's hard to know what's real and amounts to distorting misdirection. At some risk of over simplification, the discord essentially reduces down to this: The sides have reached tenuous accord on minor matters but are stuck over movement toward player free agency.

The players' union covets it. The owners carefully crafted the entire single-entity structure in order to avoid it. The broken-down heaps of leagues past served as useful reminders of what movement toward free agency hath wrought. Besides, new owners recently have bought into the league, paying $30 and $40 million franchise fees, feeling safely shielded from anything that resembled an escalating salary arms race.

The current deal expired on Jan. 31. The two sides, still appearing chummy at the time, agreed to extend the current agreement to Feb. 12. Snowy weather snuffed out some of the negotiating sessions, so the deadline was pushed back another 13 days to Feb. 25. Since then ... well, at least we have been spared any more fake deadlines.

Some hope was detected when federal mediator George H. Cohen joined last week's talks. He remains in Washington, where negotiating sessions began again Monday.

Principals on both sides have managed to play nice and keep negotiations secret until last week. Mounting pressure initiated a small-arms-fire level of serve-and-volley rhetoric. Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller and Toronto defender Nick Garcia are among the players who have spoken publicly, eliciting a response from MLS president Mark Abbott.

Abbott expressed disappointment last week that an agreement between parties to avoid public discussion had been breached. "As such, we were disappointed to see comments from a number of players characterizing the status of the negotiations and the possibility of a strike," he said. "The players' comments do not accurately reflect the proposals that we have made to address the players' concerns or the productive nature of the discussions between MLS and the union."

Union executive director Bob Foose responded with his own public statement. "Recent comments from players simply reflect the fact that the players are unified and, per the results of our strike vote, will not begin the new season if a new agreement with the league is not reached," Foose said, clarifying that his union had not shifted its position and that not much had changed.

At any rate, most fans probably don't care about how the sausage is made here. They probably know more than they ever wanted to know about guaranteed contracts, unilateral contract options and the range of free agency potentially available for out-of-contract players.

"This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they're trying to live out the dream," Keller told The Associated Press last Friday.

He may be right, but it may not matter. In the chill of national recession, the public may not be in the mood to hear about dreams -- particularly not the 10 percent of population currently unemployed. Paying bills is the here-and-now. Chasing dreams is a luxury that's off the table for many Americans today.

MLS player income averaged $147,945 to begin last season, according to the union, a figure skewed by the group's high earners. The median number is probably more representative; the point at which an equal number make above and below was $88,000. Consider that median annual U.S. family income hovers just north of $50,000, according to Census Bureau statistics (which also show alarming trends in the decline of that amount).

And therein dwells the real danger. Soccer in the United States is here to stay. It's not going anywhere. Professional soccer, however, is but one branch on the tree. Branches can and do break.

Who could truly judge the damage ahead in the event of a strike? How strong can the league truly be after 14 sometimes troubled seasons? Seattle was an amazing story last year, establishing an MLS season record for average attendance. But for all the fever-pitch greatness of the Seattle story there is a Colorado, a Kansas City and a Dallas.

Those are the low-wage earners of league attendance and, probably, community impact and acceptance. New England and Red Bull New York are above them in average attendance, but still below 14,000. Columbus (following a championship year) and San Jose were just barely above that figure. How much damage can the weaker teams sustain?

What about that historic March 27 date at Red Bull Arena? This new $200 million baby is exactly what the bungling franchise needed to create a fresh start, to begin the process of kissing and making up with fans, a scorned lot with abundant cause to dismiss the MLS brand over 14 seasons. This is hardly a way to begin a new relationship.

Remember, too, that professional soccer is unique here for this reason: Thanks to global TV and Internet options, it's easy for fans to sate their hunger for pro soccer.

A players strike inflicted tremendous damage on the NHL a few years ago -- and the NHL represents the globe's top hockey brand. MLS can hardly make such a claim.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

World-class arena awaits Red Bulls

(by Grant Wahl 3-1-10)

HARRISON, N.J. -- It's easy to exaggerate the importance of sports stadiums. The coverage of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium last year made it seem as though Jerry Jones had commissioned a modern-day version of the Egyptian pyramids instead of, you know, a really big place to watch football, eat wings and get lit on a Sunday night.

But after touring Red Bull Arena, the new $200 million-plus home of Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, I'm a little breathless myself. In the year 2010, the most advanced, state-of-the-art soccer stadium in the Western Hemisphere (at least until Chivas de Guadalajara's futuristic "volcano" stadium gets finished) is a couple of convenient PATH train stops from the epicenter of New York City.

And the key phrase is "soccer stadium." Unlike so many other MLS buildings, which have a stage at one end and double as concert venues, Red Bull Arena is built for fútbol. Not one of the 25,000 seats -- and they're all seats; no benches here -- has a bad view. The front row is a mere 21 feet from the sidelines and 27 feet from the endlines, the better for Juan Pablo Ángel to make a quick run and Lambeau Leap over the short retaining wall after scoring a goal.

Red Bull has gotten plenty of criticism for producing a woeful soccer team in recent years, but the Austrian-based company got everything right in its new building, which is modeled after the Wörthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt, one of the Austrian host stadiums for Euro 2008. After taking over the project entirely from AEG during the development process, Red Bull made several soccer-friendly design changes, removing the planned stage, choosing a grass surface over FieldTurf, opting for a full wraparound roof, reducing the number of luxury suites by nearly half and adding more seats for real fans.

"We wanted to make the building be for the soccer fan," said Red Bulls VP Andy McGowan, who wouldn't let a snowstorm prevent us from touring the facility last Friday.

It is a truly edifying edifice in a number of ways:

• Location. Giants Stadium was always a hassle to reach for soccer games. If you lived in Manhattan, you had to take either your car, an expensive car service or a bus from the Port Authority bus terminal. Red Bull Arena, by contrast, is reached easily by public transport. The Newark Amtrak station and Harrison PATH stop are a stone's throw away, which will make attending games easier not just for fans in the tristate area but also rival supporters from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston.

• Hip surroundings. There are also plenty of good food-and-drink spots for before and after the game. The famous Ironbound District is close by with its Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants and churrascarias. (Bus service from the Ironbound to the stadium is free with a game ticket.) A six-square-block redevelopment project is underway right next to the stadium and will feature restaurants, retail stores and condominiums. And the stadium itself features a cool-looking restaurant/bar called the Bulls Corner, an all-you-can-eat buffet in the club level and full catering for those willing to plunk down $65,000 to $70,000 for a 17- to 22-seat skybox.

• The little things. There are two huge HD video boards. The aluminum stands will make the place loud, as opposed to the dead atmosphere of soccer games at Giants Stadium. The grass field has a hot-water system underground that keeps the roots warm and a drainage vacuum for dealing with heavy rainfall. The section for hardcores is still called Section 101, a nod to the team's best fans. The players will enter the stadium from a dramatic midfield tunnel. And there is space for five locker rooms (the Red Bulls won't have to move out of theirs, even for an international doubleheader), an indoor warm-up room and a 4,200-square-foot media work room. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that there are 100 press seats at midfield in the lower bowl -- a stunning decision in a league that often puts the press box in a broom closet off in the corner.

Red Bull Arena is scheduled to open on March 20 with a friendly against Santos, the Brazilian club of Pelé and (these days) Robinho, but two big questions remain. One, will the MLS players decide to go on strike? (The league's collective bargaining agreement expired last week.) And will the Red Bulls have a team that's good enough to match the hype of their new stadium? Coach Hans Backe has been hired to turn around a side that finished with the worst record in MLS last year, and hoped-for signing Thierry Henry wouldn't be able to join the team until after the World Cup or, more likely, in 2011 (if he signs at all).

If and when that happens, a world-class player will find his new home is a world-class facility, the kind that tells you MLS is here to stay.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

MLS contract rules detrimental to players

(by Freddie Ljungberg 3-15-10)

Imagine you work at Burger King and you get sacked. Now, you want to get another job at McDonald's, but you're not allowed to unless McDonald's compensates Burger King. It seems absurd, but that's the way certain things work in MLS at the moment. If your team terminates your contract, it still can demand a trade from another club before you can go and play for that other club.

The CBA, for me personally, is a sad saga. I was told it would be settled when I came back to the USA in January. Now it plays a lot on the minds of players in the preseason because we don't know if the first game is going to be played on March 25 or not. If it isn't, it will be a very sad day for players and fans in this country.

Coming from Europe, maybe I see it differently, as I've been playing under FIFA rules my whole life, but the players just want those rights. If we keep the wage cap, it shouldn't put the league in economic jeopardy as it won't cost the league any more money than what it has already agreed to.

One thing for me that is very confusing is what happens after a player's contract is up. I find it amazing that even after your club lets your contract run out without renewing, it still has all the power and still owns the player's rights.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Keller: Strike vote isn't about money but player rights

( 3-12-10)

SEATTLE -- Kasey Keller wants to make sure fans who hear about a possible strike in Major League Soccer understand the current standoff is about player rights and not salaries.

"This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they're trying to live out the dream," Keller said on Friday.

The Seattle Sounders goalkeeper said he wasn't surprised when the MLS Players Union announced Thursday it voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by March 25, when the Sounders host expansion Philadelphia in the league opener.

The league's first collective bargaining agreement, a five-year deal, originally was set to run out Jan. 31 but was extended twice while negotiations continued. It expired Feb. 25 after the MLS Players Union refused another extension.

Negotiators for management and players met Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in talks convened by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

All the players are asking for are rights players have in other leagues around the world, Keller said. He understands that when the previous deal was agreed to, players needed to make concessions to keep the league going.

Now that the league has a solid base and is expanding into new markets, and Keller said it's time for the players to get some of those concessions back.

"I understand where the league was coming from five, 10 years ago when it was up against the wall if we were going to still have a league," Keller said. "That's now no longer the case and some of the things they were able to get away with just can't happen anymore."

Keller has been on teams in the top leagues in Europe -- the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain and living in a castle while playing in Germany's Bundesliga. Keller spent the 2007-08 season playing with Fulham in the EPL, but found himself mostly in a reserve role.

Unhappy with the single-entity structure that has seen the league negotiate all contracts since play began in 1996, players want greater free-agent rights and a higher percentage of guaranteed deals.

Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal amount make above and below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

"It's something that everyone needs to realize that this thing being positive for the players in the end is positive for the league, which in the end is positive for the owners," said Seattle's Peter Vagenas, about to begin his 11th MLS season. "Because quite frankly the rest of the world looks at some of the rules and regulations we abide by and it sort of adds to the stereotype of this league not being top quality."

The threat of a strike comes as the Philadelphia Union, the league's 16th team, is set to start play at Seattle in the league opener. While Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., is to open with an exhibition between New York and Brazil's Santos on March 20, a strike would postpone the first league match at the $200 million soccer-specific stadium, against Chicago on March 27.

Earlier this week, Seattle's designated player, Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg, said when he flew over from Europe to join the Sounders preseason training in early February he was told a deal was imminent.

Both Keller, 40, and Vagenas say they remain optimistic something will get settled before the Sounders are supposed to take the field in less than two weeks against Philadelphia. But they also insist the players are united in making sure they receive what they believe is a fair deal.

"I'm quite frankly shocked to see it still at this point with the league still dragging its feet," Vagenas said. "We're very much behind the rest of the world, rest of the leagues in terms of players rights. ... We understand the sport in this country isn't the NFL, but at the same time there are certain rights players should have and we don't have."

Friday, March 12, 2010

MLS players prepared to strike if CBA not reached

( 3-11-10)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Major League Soccer players voted to strike if a new labor contract isn't agreed to before the season opener on March 25.

The league's first collective bargaining agreement, a five-year deal, originally was set to run out Jan. 31 but was extended twice while negotiations continued. It expired Feb. 25 after the MLS Players Union refused another extension.

"Recent comments from players simply reflect the fact that the players are unified and, per the results of our strike vote, will not begin the new season if a new agreement with the league is not reached," union executive director Bob Foose said in a statement Thursday.

The union did not detail the strike authorization vote.

Negotiators for management and players met Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in talks convened by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

On Thursday, Toronto defender Nick Garcia was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as saying: "We're anticipating not having the season starting. ... As of now, for us, we're very far apart, even with the mediator there in D.C."

Unhappy with the single-entity structure that has resulted in the league negotiating all contracts since play began in 1996, players want greater free-agent rights and a higher percentage of guaranteed deals.

Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal number make above or below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

"We have an understanding with the union and the mediator that we will not publicly discuss what takes place during these bargaining sessions, so we were disappointed when we saw comment from a number of players that both characterized the status of the negotiations and discussed the possibility of a strike," MLS president Mark Abbott said before Foose's announcement.

"The meetings this week were productive and we scheduled a number of additional meetings," Abbott said. "The players' comments do not accurately reflect the proposals that we've made to address their concerns or the productive nature of the discussions we've had between MLS and the union."

The threat of a strike comes as the Philadelphia Union, the league's 16th team, is set to join the competition in the league opener.

Abbott said MLS ticket sales have not been hurt by the lack of an agreement.

"The league continues to function business as usual," he said.

Los Angeles Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, whose loan to Everton is scheduled to end after Saturday's match at Birmingham, may be able to extend his stay in the English Premier League if there's a strike.

"There's not a strike, so there's nothing to address at the moment. Landon is going to be returning after this game this weekend," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. "We're proceeding ahead like we do a couple of weeks before any season."

Galaxy midfielder David Beckham already is on loan to AC Milan through the end of the Serie A season in May.

It is not clear whether players signed to contracts with MLS would have the ability during a strike to sign with clubs in other countries without MLS approval. MLS players under consideration for the U.S. World Cup roster could be sent to foreign clubs for training.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Federal mediator appointed for MLS talks

( 3-5-10)

NEW YORK -- A federal mediator will be at the bargaining table when Major League Soccer's labor talks resume next week in Washington, D.C.

Management and the MLS Players Union said Friday they have accepted an offer from George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, to serve as mediator.

The league's first collective bargaining agreement was to have run out Jan. 31, was extended twice and then expired Feb. 25 when players balked at adding more time. The sides have not met since Feb. 22.

Players say they want increased free-agent rights within the league and more guaranteed contracts. MLS, a single-entity structure in which the league office negotiates player contracts, opposes additional free agency rights.

The first competitive game of the year for a MLS team is Tuesday, when Columbus hosts the Mexican club Toluca in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Red Bull Arena, a $200 million, 25,000-seat stadium in Harrison, N.J., formally opens March 20 with an exhibition game between the Red Bulls and Brazil's Santos.

The league schedule opens March 25, when the expansion Philadelphia Union is at Seattle.

MLS strike possibility looms as agreement expires

( 2-25-10)

NEW YORK -- Major League Soccer's collective bargaining agreement was set to expire Thursday night after players balked at a third short-term extension. While the union's decision left open the possibility of the league's first strike, players said they won't walk off just yet.

The sides, whose five-year contract initially was due to expire Jan. 31, have not met since Monday's session in Washington, D.C.

"We have advised our players to keep working for the time being, but as of Friday they will be doing so without a CBA," Major League Soccer Players Union executive director Bob Foose said in a statement. "In the meantime, all options are being considered as the process continues."

MLS president Mark Abbott said last weekend that the league didn't plan to lock out players and was prepared to start the season under the terms and conditions of the old contract.

Players have sought free agent rights and more guaranteed contracts from the single-entity league, which launched in 1996 and negotiates all contracts on behalf of its teams.

"We have listened to the issues raised by the MLS Players Union and the league has made detailed proposals that have addressed these issues, including in the areas of economics, guaranteed contracts, options and the ability of a player to move to another MLS club if he is released by his current club," MLS said in a statement. "These proposals, which represent substantial changes from the current CBA, will significantly increase our spending and provide substantially more rights to the players."

Income for players averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal amount make above and below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

"While we expect that negotiations with MLS will resume at some point, there simply hasn't been enough progress made in the negotiations to date to warrant an extension of the old agreement," Foose said. "We are completely committed to forging real changes to the way MLS players are treated."

The MLS schedule begins March 25, when the expansion Philadelphia Union is at Seattle, but there are some matches before then. Columbus hosts Toluca on March 9 in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League on March 9, then plays the second leg at the Mexican club eight days later.

Red Bull Arena, a $200 million, 25,000-seat stadium in Harrison, N.J., formally opens with an exhibition game between the Red Bulls and Brazil's Santos on March 20. The Red Bulls said Thursday that Robinho, on loan to Santos from Manchester City, will be part of the travel roster along with Neymar, Giovani and Fabio Costa.

MLS willing to start season under expired contract

( 2-20-10)

NEW YORK -- Major League Soccer is willing to start the season under the rules of its expired labor contract.

MLS president Mark Abbott decided to go public Saturday with comments about bargaining after seeing players start to speak out a day earlier.

"We've communicated that the league doesn't have an intention of commencing a lockout," he said.

Training camps have started, and the season opener is scheduled for March 25, when the expansion Philadelphia Union is at Seattle. MLS informed the union of its decision last month, putting the onus on players to decided whether to strike for the first time.

Union executive director Bob Foose did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

"We absolutely hope they wouldn't make that decision," Abbott said.

The league's five-year labor contract expired Jan. 31, but the sides have twice extended bargaining. Talks resume Monday in Washington, and the current extension runs to Thursday.

Players were quoted in several outlets Saturday as saying little progress had been made in talks. Abbott said owners had proposed giving an additional $60 million to players during a five-year deal.

"The owners already lose money. It's a question of adding to those losses," he said.

Income for players averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal amount make above and below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

Players want increased freedom of movement within the league and don't like that most contracts are not guaranteed. In the single-entity structure of the MLS, which launched in 1996, all players sign with the league rather than individual teams.

"We have made a proposal that would guarantee a significant number of contracts, not all contracts, but a significant number of them," Abbott said. "We made a proposal that would limit the number of team-allowable options that we have in player contracts.

"To characterize the league as not taking the players' concerns seriously is just factually incorrect. What we have not made a proposal on and what the league is not prepared to do is to have free agency within the league. The league created its structure after really studying other efforts to launch professional soccer leagues in the United States, which unfortunately failed."

La Manga Cup

( 11-8-05)

While previous Obscure Metro Files looked at little known former players, this edition will take a look at an obscure tournament, La Manga Cup. Although it happened less than two years ago, many Metro fans have no idea that it occurred. But they definitely should; not only does La Manga Cup represent the only meaningful trophy won by the Metros, it can represent a whole lot more.

In their pathetic history, the Metros won all of three "titles". The first was an Eastern Conference Regular Season championship in 2000 (Metro finished ahead of THREE other teams), and we all remember the beautiful vase they got to commemorate it. You can put flowers in it and stuff. The next was the 2001 MLS Preseason Tournament, and we are sure that trophy was very nice too. And who can forget the 5:0 triumph over Dallas in the team's second game! If it had only meant something...

But this last one did. For in 2004, the MetroStars participated in La Manga Cup, a yearly tournament that has been held in Murcia, Spain, since 1999. Teams from countries with a summer season (among them Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Russia) take part. In 2004, nine teams did. The Metros were placed in Group A with two Norwegian clubs, Viking Stavanger and Bodo/Glimt.

After Bodo and Viking tied 0:0 in the opener, the MetroStars faced the Stavanger club and lost, 1:0, finishing the match with just nine players. But in their final group game, they came on top of Bodo, 3:1, behind two goals from Joselito Vaca and one from Olivier Occean (who impressed so much in the tournament that he was nabbed by Odd Grenland and never played for Metro again). With their superior goal difference, the Metros advanced to the semifinals as the best second place team. And that's when the Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev awaited them.

Kiev was coming off a Champions League campaign in which they defeated Arsenal, and played against Metro with multiple players who participated in the European run. But an Amado Guevara penalty kick and an Occean goal off a John Wolyniec feed gave Metro a two-goal first half advantage. Dinamo then answered twice. With the game tied in the 73rd minute, Kiev's defender Goran Sablic tried to block an Occean pass that ended in his own net and gave Metro the lead for good.

Now came the final, and their old foe, Viking. A 1:0 game again, but this time, it was Metro who got the upper hand, scoring on a Jeff Parke header off a corner kick in the 27th minute. Guevara was named tournament MVP. The trophy was raised high. And all rejoiced in the Spanish sun.

So it's just a preseason tournament, you say? Perhaps. But name another MLS team that won a tournament against European competition? Or one that won a tournament staged outside North America? That's right. There are none. Metro was the first. It was preseason, but so what? After ten years, why don't we try to find a ray of sunshine in this pile of crap?