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Connecting The Dots: The Lampard deal & MLS' desperate straits

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With Collective Bargaining Agreement talks ongoing, could City Football Group's demonstrated autonomy be the last straw for the league's single-entity status?

"The important thing to remember is, every penny we pay the players is a penny that our investor/operators are losing. And no one likes losing, even when you're worth a trillion pennies." - something Don Garber has never said
"The important thing to remember is, every penny we pay the players is a penny that our investor/operators are losing. And no one likes losing, even when you're worth a trillion pennies." - something Don Garber has never said
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In Don Garber's nightmares, the dominant color is sky blue - all the clothes are sky blue, all the walls, every corner of the horizon. In Don Garber's nightmares, children sing in piping voices in every human tongue, but they're not singing "Blue Moon" - the lyrics translate to a single refrain: "You blew it, Donnie. You blew it."

For the MLS commissioner, the job is multi-faceted, never bounded, ever expanding. It's cigars and cocktails with sponsors. It's mouthing focus-tested platitudes in line with the dictates of the owners. And, above everything, it's doing and saying nothing, absolutely nothing, that casts any aspersions on the structure and governance of the league.

Single entity? It's the only reason anyone plays professional soccer in North America.

Promotion and relegation? It's a goal that is deeply important to our investor/operators, but we have to be certain that all stakeholders are protected in the ... [continue in this vein until the questioner appears bored]

And on, and on, and on. Protect the investors, shape the PR, ride herd on the national-team coach - all in a day's work. Kiss up, kick down, light a Cohiba. But into each life some rain must fall, and in Garber's world, the last few weeks have been monsoon season.

It all started so simply. MLS expansion side NYCFC - with considerable signal-boosting from MLS and Garber himself - announced the signing of Frank Lampard in the summer; a codicil to the agreement was that Lampard was to be loaned to Manchester City, the English Premier league behemoth also owned by the City Football Group out of Qatar.

A little more than a month ago, rumors began circulating that Manchester City wanted to extend its half-season loan of Lampard to a full-season loan. In an effort to placate the nearly 12,000 season-ticket holders of NYCFC, Garber went on the record that he still 'expected' to see Lampard joining NYCFC in preseason.

Now it's all collapsed, and rather spectacularly. Lampard's been talismanic for Man City, but instead of a tantalizing preview for soccer fans in the Big Apple, it's a mouthful of ashes. Lampard may come in the summer, or he may not.

But that's hardly the biggest takeaway. Lampard may show up in the summer, and he may play well. But the shenanigans which have allowed him to 'sign' for NYCFC have the potential to shake MLS to its very foundations.

The CBA and single-entity

MLS was designed, from the ground up, as a way to avoid antitrust - a legal entity which allowed the owners of the league to avoid accusations of collusion by, essentially, baking collusion into the cake and claiming it as the very most crucial part of the recipe.* "Absent this collusion," they would have us understand, "there would be no first-division league in America." The fruit of this collusion, which we call single entity, is the suppression of players' wages - hardly a surprise, as that was the idea from conception.

Even in these labor-hating times, the US legal environment squints hard at massively wealthy groups of owners agreeing not to pay market rates for labor. The crucial factors for this kind of legal finagling are fairly simple: The owners of the league have to demonstrate that they really do work in concert to make personnel decisions, and that every part of the collective shares in the benefits of these decisions.**

Which brings us to the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.

Comes now the MLS Players Union, needing proof that MLS is not, in fact, a soccer version of the Borg, assimilating all ownership desires into a single expression of Soccer; and here, at the end of a long trail of almosts and not-quites (blind draws, secret allocation orders, 'certain thresholds' and the like): The smoking gun.

Frank Lampard was never signed by MLS. He was signed by City Football Group. His arrival was trumpeted by 'all the stakeholders;' but his absence at the season's start puts the lie to this little round of ownership Kum Bah Ya. This was a single ownership group acting unilaterally when Lampard was 'signed' to MLS, and it is a single ownership group acting unilaterally who have withdrawn him until summer.

It's the thin end of the wedge. If the teams in the league are acting independently - and even the most cursory glance at MLS in 2015 shows this to be true - then the MLS Players Union could decertify itself, claim the owners are not bargaining in good faith, and sue for antitrust violations.

Just like in Don Garber's sky-blue nightmares.

*Basically, the outcome of Fraser v Major League Soccer, LLC of 2002

** Speaking here, in a general way, of the outcomes from American Needle, Inc v NFL, Inc of 2008