The Chicago Fire gambled Wednesday when the team decided to get on a plane and head to Los Angeles. If they were right, they would be kicking off the 20th MLS season Friday night against defending MLS Cup champions Los Angeles Galaxy. It would be a major opportunity with a national spotlight to show fans what the retooled side could have in store for the season.
If they were wrong, they would have made a lengthy trip to the warm haven of Los Angeles - sunshine, beaches and other pleasantries. Come to think of it, what was at risk again? It was really just a great decision to board that plane.
But for fans, that flight morning Wednesday was a symbol of hope that our favorite teams just might take the pitch this weekend after all. Collective bargaining negotiations seemed bleak and a strike seemed imminent. Would we all be subjected to another weekend of watching European football, trying to fill a void that we all knew deep down could only be filled by the likes of Harry Shipp and Jeff Larentowicz? The answer is a resounding no.
Contentious, painstaking negotiations ultimately led to an agreement between MLS owners and the players' union in the 11th hour Wednesday, guaranteeing the league's most anticipated opening weekend in history will go on as planned.
Owners made a seismic shift by offering a reported free agency system that would allows players who are at least 28 years old with eight years of experience to have some control over the team they play for. While still quite restrictive, it is a far cry from the give-not-an-inch tone set by Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen's comments earlier in negotiations. Minimum salaries are reportedly bumped up to $60,000, and there is a 15 percent increase in the salary cap.
Details such as the future of the re-entry draft, allocation money and other issues are still being leaked just hours after the union's affirmative vote. No doubt the players sacrificed once again in this round of bargaining, but with a strike avoided, the future of the league is as bright as ever.
What could have been a crippling blow to the league ended up barely leaving a bruise. The league drew the attention of major media outlets and provided a high-drama storyline without experiencing the backlash of an actual work stoppage, massive business partnerships were secured, TV deals abroad were inked and the sold-out showcase between Orlando City and NYCFY will go on as planned on ESPN2.
Yes, the overwhelming majority of exuberant supporters have come away from this episode with disdain for the owners who already were viewed as villains by the most invested fans. But there is a reason supporters are called supporters. They would much rather stay engaged with the product and fight for the change they believe in than run away. The league not only kept its most devoted fan base, it reached casual fans that may otherwise not have been curious enough to tune in had it not been for the increased coverage MLS received the last two weeks. It may be an unorthodox way to introduce people to the league, but it could work.
In the end, the players get to make a living playing a game they love - even though it may not quite be the living fans believe they have earned. And the owners still maintain a great deal of power, though it may be more than fans believe they deserve.
I'm not a labor lawyer or a shrewd businessman. I am a soccer fan. It is not the boardroom battles that I fell in love with, but the battles on the pitch. This weekend, we all the get the game we're passionate about again played by the teams we love.