Fans will get more than lip service

Supporters make their voice heard during CBA crisis

Within
minutes of the announcement that MLS and the players union had signed a new
collective bargaining agreement, my phone went berserk. Texts, e-mails, a phone
call from a ski resort in the Italian Alps -- everyone conveyed the same
message: “Whew.”

That
really says it all, doesn’t it? Relief, exasperation, the comedown of a close
call. It defined the moment and the feeling.

Of
course, many pundits, privately and sometime publically, never really thought a
work stoppage was imminent, despite all the tactical rhetoric. No matter how
much either side had to gain from a deep, unified entrenchment, the thinking
went, both had more to lose from a work stoppage.

Especially
in this overstuffed annum of soccer -- the World Cup, USA-England, a Saturday
afternoon Champions League final, the Philadelphia Union’s maiden season, Red
Bull Arena, powerhouse club friendlies all season long -- that seems to have
soccer on the verge of hitting the turbo boost.

A
work stoppage would have not only pulled the foot off the accelerator, but also
yanked on the emergency brake, and maybe even spun off the road. And
ultimately, the fans -- the passengers in this native Detroiter’s overwrought
metaphor -- are the ones who would’ve been thrown from the car.

Now
they won’t be. The reality is, the supporters rode shotgun from start to
finish.

“Without
fans, there is no league,” MLS president Mark Abbott told me on Monday.
“Clearly we were cognizant of the fans throughout the process because at the
end of the day the fans need to know that the league is here for the
long-term.”

Abbott
didn’t mention any specific examples, but I hope he saw the video made by a
clever group of Real Salt Lake fans
who showed us all what MLS might look like
if, say, replacement players were used.
It wasn’t pretty. Pretty scary, actually. But very funny.

And
it showed just how centrist the fans were during the negotiations. Unlike with
so many labor fights, the struggle for the hearts and minds of MLS’ fans saw
neither the league nor the players come out on top. Those RSL fans, like the
other fans with whom I spoke with and exchanged e-mails, understood and
appreciated the arguments on both sides. They granted that the points in contention
were valid and needed to be addressed.

They
also didn’t really care. Or they cared so deeply -- about their club, about the
league, about the very game -- that they couldn’t fathom anyone seriously
considering anything drastic that might threaten it all. The truth is, even
with soccer’s current momentum we socceristas are still not, and maybe never
will be, very secure with our place in the U.S. sportscape. We are that guy who
switches to an empty bulkhead seat on a plane then assumes every passenger
coming down the aisle will be the one to kick him out.

But
with the new CBA signed and sealed, we can relax. Break open the peanuts. Order
a beer. The seat is ours -- in the front of a ’62 Vette, in a first-class
bulkhead row, or, best of all, at the midfield stripe.

Greg Lalas is the editor in chief of MLSsoccer.com. His “Outside the Box” column
appears every Monday.