The soccer stories we will be following in 2020 (Part 1)

The New Year begins with a flurry of activity.

The U.S. men's national team is headed to Qatar for a three-week training camp that opens Sunday "with the confidence and anticipation of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup," while the U.S. women open an 11-day camp Sunday in Tampa under new coach Vlatko Andonovski, who will have to name a 20-player roster for Olympic qualifying, which begins at the end of January.

U.S. Soccer is down to one full-time youth national team coach for the men's and women's programs -- announcements on new hires are anticipated -- but the U-20 and U-17 women and U-20 men will be training in January in preparation for regional qualifying in 2020. (First up: the Concacaf U-20 Women's Championship Feb. 15-March 1 in the Dominican Republic.)

MLS teams competing in the Concacaf Champions League will enter training camp on Jan. 11, two days after the league's SuperDraft.

But off-the-field issues that could impact the sport for years to come will get our attention. In the first part of our look at 2020, we look at negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Association and U.S. Soccer's hiring of a new CEO over which a flood of lawsuits has swamped the federation.

1. Will MLSPA members stick together?

The current agreement between MLS and is players expires on Jan. 31. In 2015, the talks went down until two days before the start of the regular season. Following four straight days of marathon talks in Washington, MLS and the MLSPA came to an agreement, averting a strike that seemed imminent.

The irony is that MLS has changed drastically since then because of what was not part of the agreement. With a deal in place for the next five years, the league pumped millions of dollars of new spending -- on its own terms -- into the player market with TAM, the player spending mechanism that selectively covers acquisitions costs and subsidizes the salaries of players whose compensation exceeds the annual maximum salary budget charge ($530,000 in 2019). TAM players are mostly imports and have turned the composition of MLS teams on their heads.

Thanks to TAM funding -- and the proliferation of green cards -- an average of only four starters on the teams that reached the final eight in 2019 were Americans, the reverse of what it was in the 2014 playoffs -- seven out of 11 starters were Americans -- before the new CBA was reached.

One of the MLSPA's demands is an end of TAM -- "a made-up set of restrictions done from a central office to try and dictate to all of our franchises how they build their rosters," according to executive director Bob Foose -- from which this new class of players has benefited.

The MLSPA has been preparing for a potential work stoppage for two and a half years, building its strike fund and educating the players on the issues at stake and the implications of a strike, but keeping all its members on the same page may be its biggest challenge.

2. Will U.S. Soccer go outside to hire new CEO?

By the middle of February -- the AGM is Feb. 13-15 in Nashville -- U.S. Soccer should have a new CEO, replacing Dan Flynn, who served as the CEO and secretary general from June 2000 until he stepped down in September 2019. Flynn, who had a heart transplant in 2016, announced his intention to step down at last year's AGM, but he has been looking to move on for a while.

It once appeared Jay Berhalter, U.S. Soccer's chief commercial and strategy officer and Flynn's pick, would be the new CEO, but U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said he halted the first search in May because he was not satisfied with the shortlist of candidates. A new search firm came on board in September. The current list of finalists for the CEO position -- interviewed for the first time in December  -- includes men and women, and one person from outside the United States.

One of the original candidates to replace Flynn was chief stakeholder officer Brian Remedi, who was given the additional position of chief administrative officer in September while the search to replace Flynn continued. Remedi has gotten high marks from staffers for his work in recent months at the federation, which has been working to improve its workplace culture following the publication of a small number of reviews posted on the employment networking site Glassdoor that received national press.

Still, the federation will be under strong pressure to choose an outside candidate.

"They've produced an incredible list of people,” Cordeiro said of the new search -- without revealing whether they included insiders like Berhalter and Remedi -- after the open session of the federation's December board meeting. “Maybe earlier in the year, there was some hesitancy on the part of candidates to want to come talk to us given a lot of the issues out there. Maybe in September, some of that got clarified, perhaps.”

3. What will it take for U.S. Soccer to settle?

One of the things scaring off many candidates will have been the string of lawsuits U.S. Soccer is facing. No executive is going to be able to put his or her stamp on an organization if it is mired in litigation.

Increased legal expenses have driven the federation's projected deficit for fiscal year 2020 (ending on March 31) from $14 million to $20 million. Insurance in most cases has until now covered these legal costs, but the federation's insurance has been running out in one case, driving up costs.

U.S. Soccer in federal court, status report:
NASL vs. USSF and MLS, antitrust (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York). Discovery process to close on Jan. 17.
Morgan vs. USSF, gender discrimination (U.S. District Court, Central District of California). Trial slated for May 2020.
Solo vs. USSF gender discrimination (U.S. District Court, Northern District of California). Trial slated for October 2020.
Relevent Sports Group vs. USSF, antitrust (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York). USSF's response due Jan. 3.
U.S. Soccer Foundation vs. USSF, trademark (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia). Still in discovery process.

The first lawsuit slated for trial is the class-action suit filed by members of the U.S. women's national team. A settlement in the order of eight figures is possible, though the case is complicated because the women's push for equal pay with what the federation compensates the men's national team is tied to their separate collective bargaining agreements -- the women's national team's CBA, which expires in 2021, and men's national team's CBA, which expired at the end of 2018.

The two cases that will be difficult to settle will be the two antitrust suits -- the NASL suit that was filed in 2017 and is being driven by Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso and the Relevent Sports Group suit filed four months ago -- because they challenge U.S. Soccer's authority to regulate professional soccer. (Complicating matters: the case in which the federation's insurance has been running out is the NASL suit.)

If the federation gives its attorneys the green light to settle, they'll know where to go. Famed sports litigator Jeffrey Kessler is representing the U.S. women, NASL and Relevent.

Part 2: MLS, NWSL, USL, NISA in 2020.

Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications