Why charter flights could drive a wedge between owners in MLS' next CBA negotiations

The gap between affluent and thrifty owners could be further revealed when it comes to upgrading travel.

Charter flights may be the most important bargaining point in MLS’ next collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2020, and player health and ease of travel isn’t the reason. In fact, charter flights may be one of the big drivers of significant change in the league.

Any fan of MLS knows by now that the league, like the rest of us, remains stuck on commercial travel. As a beat reporter at the Orlando Sentinel in 2015, I often found myself coming back from a road game on the same flight as Orlando City. It was often awkward for the players and myself, though occasionally, it was a boost to be able to corner coaches for a few extra quotes. It never got normal, though, to see a player like Kaka board with the rest of us and hope to avoid a middle seat. And yes, sometimes even Kaka gets stuck with a middle seat.

There’s not one coach or player in MLS that doesn’t believe charter flights will make travel easier and decrease the current edge home teams have. This season, teams are 150-58-61 at home. Only three teams do not have a winning record at home, while just one has a better-than-.500 record on the road.

A contributing factor is the hours and hours spent at airports before and after games, including the same delays and cancellations we all experience. Currently, teams are limited to four legs of charter-flight travel per year.

The LA Times did a good piece on MLS travel last season. Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin also recently talked about it with Jonathan Tannenwald in a story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. One key quote in that story captured the real question regarding charter flights.

“I think at a minimum on the real cross-country flights, it’s kind of almost necessary at this stage,” Curtin said. “As the game continues to grow, that will definitely be an issue that our ownership groups will be on board with.”

Yes, investment is going up on the player product. But that doesn’t mean every ownership group is truly ready to spend at new levels. If charter flights pass in the next round of CBA negotiations, the price tag for the league could increase by $20 million or more per year. That means another $1 million or so in annual costs per owner. While a team like Atlanta would welcome charter flights, there are more than a few MLS teams that would shudder at the expense.

Owners like Atlanta's Blank are tipping the scales. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Owners like Atlanta's Blank are tipping the scales. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

In other words, it could force some ownership groups capable of spending more to do just that. It might also force some ownership groups to sell their teams to owners more willing to spend at increasingly high levels.

There is currently a tug-of-war, of sorts, occurring behind the scenes in MLS. Some ownership groups are ready to spend more believing the league is primed for growth, and further investment will only accelerate that growth. Other ownership groups are happy to limit their investment, either because they can operate at a profit by doing so or because their resources are more limited than some of the billionaire ownership groups that have come into MLS in recent expansion.

Before, there was an old guard that controlled much of the decision making. Multiple sources indicate that is starting to change. There isn’t one group that holds the hammer anymore.

It is creating a divide, which is why a proposed addition of discretionary Targeted Allocation Money would be a big deal, if passed. It would be a sign that the spending teams are truly starting to win some battles in board meetings.

Not everyone is on board with the idea this is good for the league, of course. Some believe the league has been very careful to manage costs over its 22-year history for a reason: It’s not yet ready to take on increased costs and still survive and thrive.

It’s impossible for the general public to know if that’s true. We know about the expansion fees, but the revenue Soccer United Marketing generates is private. The terms for MLS’ international TV deals were never made public. Even the new Adidas deal can be spun to show that it only adds a couple million per team, per year – hardly enough to cover increased costs in both first-team roster spending and off-field expenses like flights.

MLS ownership groups could be far better off than we realize. A recent Facebook post by Orlando City owner Flavio Augusto da Silva indicated the league is pitching significant growth in the next decade or so. MLS could also fall short of the rosy outlook Forbes provides. It’s really impossible to know.

Charter flights may be one of the bigger breaking points in the years to come. If ownership is split on the issue, it could become a real flash point in the CBA negotiations.

For those championing the cause as a necessary cost to see an improved product there’s another reason to root for the flights. It may signal the league is ready to move forward into a new tier of spending.

From my point of view, that’s a good thing for MLS.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Every Thursday we do a live Q&A on FourFourTwo’s Facebook page. I select one question from that Facebook Live session to expand upon in my Monday column. Come join us this Thursday!

Adam LaGrange · 8:02 What do you think about Piatti's comments last night about "might be his final 10 games"?

This was, essentially, Eddie Johnson rubbing his fingers together after scoring a goal. Contract negotiations sometimes force players to go public with their demands. As he comes to the end of his contract with Montreal, Piatti has gone public with the fact talks aren’t moving along fast enough.

Piatti remains one of the top five players in the league, and even that may be selling him short. The Argentine is one of a few players in MLS capable of turning a game on his own. And with Montreal apparently still trying to make a decision about whether Piatti will return, the 32-year-old continues to prove his value. Piatti has six goals and one assist in the last four games, and his production only hammers home the fact that the Impact go as he goes.

It’s easy to say Montreal would be better off spending a high amount on a transfer fee for a young, Miguel Almiron-style player rather than paying Piatti $4 million per year over the next two years. But that means the Impact have to nail that signing. It’s never that simple.

It’s not much of a gamble to say failing to re-sign Piatti will be a mistake. Piatti is showing he still has plenty left in the tank.

The Final Third

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto is top dog

Watching TFC up close this weekend here in Chicago, it’s clear it is the best team in MLS. Toronto can attack teams from so many angles, and even on a night when Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco were not at their best, Victor Vazquez picked up the slack and led Toronto to a key road win. Right now, Toronto is the heavy favorite to capture both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

Watching two U.S. men's national team stars up close also reinforced two things: Jozy Altidore is an absolute beast to handle up top. His physical presence and hold-up play remain incredibly impressive, and Altidore remains a top option to start for the national team, even as Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey continue to receive support from U.S. fans.

Meanwhile, it can’t be emphasized enough how important Michael Bradley is to TFC. They look to run almost everything through the U.S. captain, and he’s often the outlet pass that gets things started for every Toronto possession. If you want to beat Toronto FC, the best way to do so is to find a way to take Bradley out of the game and force someone else to dictate TFC’s possession.

Unfortunately for MLS teams, pressing Bradley often means leaving Vazquez in too much space in midfield, as Chicago learned this weekend.

Minnesota can’t catch a break

What a tough loss for Minnesota United.

The expansion team finally showed the defensive discipline to earn a road point in a tough place. A penalty kick in the final seconds of extra time in Seattle erased that effort, however.

Watching Minnesota last night, it was clear the Ethan Finlay signing was a good one. Finlay’s commitment to the cause from start to finish is a good example for some of the other players in the side. It highlighted the moments when some players were too casual on and off the ball, including two of Minnesota’s leaders, Kevin Molino and Francisco Calvo.

As Minnesota continues to improve its roster, it will benefit most from adding MLS veterans like Sam Cronin and Finlay, who understand what it takes to win in MLS and will give Adrian Heath a standard for the rest of the team.

It’s most likely Minnesota remains a 4-2-3-1 team, with Molino and Finlay the likely starters on the wings. If they can find a true playmaker and a possession-based defensive midfielder to pair with Cronin, Minnesota could be inching closer towards competing next season.

Read of the Week

A fascinating read from NPR on a new way to approach charity: giving cash to the poor.  I also enjoyed this profile of Timbers winger Sebastian Blanco from The Oregonian.

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