Major League Soccer and its players announced an agreement in principle on Thursday for a five-year collective bargaining agreement that raises pay and improves working conditions. But whether it will go far enough to enhance the respect M.L.S. carries in the soccer world remains in question.
For years, M.L.S. has operated with a mission to become one of the world’s top leagues in the 2020s, even as the price of attracting the best soccer talent in the world continues to rise and as the sport’s top players earn annual salaries that dwarf what an M.L.S. club pays an entire roster.
The new deal, which raises the league’s limited salary cap — a foreign concept in every other top league — to $11.6 million from $8.5 million, represents an evolution in how the league operates, not a revolution.
As M.L.S. enters its 25th season this month with 26 teams, and with four more being added by 2022, the financial restraints that have kept the league solvent far longer than any of its predecessors remain in place. On the other hand, those limits have hampered its ability to compete with leagues worldwide, critics say.
The deal, which will run through the 2024 season, must still be approved by the league’s board and the union membership. With the season starting on Feb. 29, and some teams beginning CONCACAF Champions League play a week and a half earlier, there was some pressure to complete the agreement before any games could be lost.
The old collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of last month, but the two sides agreed to extend the deadline for reaching a new deal to Friday.
Players will earn more money under the new agreement. In addition to the rise in the salary cap, the minimum salary for senior players will rise to $109,200 by 2024, from $70,250 last season, and players will see increased 401(k) contributions and other increases in benefits.
The main mechanism by which teams can exceed spending limits to sign players like Javier Hernández, known as Chicharito, and Carlos Vela — three “designated player” roster slots — remains largely the same. Also, the league removed a provision that limited which players could receive a specified pot of $1.2 million.
That rule had served as an attempt to raise salaries for players who are good but not superstars — players who make the rosters of teams in European leagues so much deeper.
As far back as 2013, Don Garber, the league commissioner, stated that the goal of M.L.S. was to become one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. In 2015, he shifted the year to 2025. While the definition of a top league is amorphous, it is clear that M.L.S. dreams of competing with the English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga. A more realistic goal would be to challenge leagues in the Netherlands, Portugal and Mexico.
That could be difficult to accomplish under the new agreement. Although players will be paid more, and the designated player rule and other exceptions mean M.L.S. clubs can have more capital to sign players, the bottom half of M.L.S. rosters will continue to earn comparatively low wages.
The average M.L.S. player earned $411,926 in guaranteed compensation in 2018, according to the M.L.S. players’ union, but the median was $179,000, indicating that outsized compensation for a few players pulled that average up. A full third of the league, 238 players, earned less than $100,000.
In 2018, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, said the United States had “all the ingredients” for M.L.S. to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world.
“As it is,” he continued, “in the world, maybe it is No. 20 or 30,” which is borne out by most rankings of world soccer leagues.
The best team in M.L.S., Los Angeles F.C., is the 136th best team in the world, according to the data news site FiveThirtyEight’s rankings. Twenty-four other leagues have at least one team better than M.L.S., and the average ranking of all teams puts M.L.S. 20th, just behind the Greek Super League and just ahead of Germany’s second division.
M.L.S. isn’t seen as the best league in its hemisphere, or even its continent. The Brazilian and Argentine leagues are better, and while the gap is shrinking, the Mexican league is ranked higher as well. No M.L.S. team has won the annual continental club championship since 2000, with Mexican clubs winning the last 14.
M.L.S. is around the 10th highest grossing league in the world by revenue, according to multiple studies and reports. Team and player salary limits largely don’t exist in soccer leagues in the rest of the world, and M.L.S. dedicates a much smaller percentage of its revenue to salaries than other leagues do.
For the time being, however, there are a number of other provisions in the new agreement that will improve player pay and working conditions.
The criteria for players to become eligible for free agency, which first came to M.L.S. in 2015, have been loosened. If players are 24 or older and have five years of service in M.L.S., they will become free agents when their contracts expire. Previously, they had to be at least 28 and have eight years of service time.
Teams will have to use charter flights for eight legs of travel in 2020, as well as for all playoff matches and CONCACAF Champions League games requiring international travel. That figure will rise to 16 by 2024. The majority of travel will still involve commercial flights, as many team owners have objected to the cost of charter travel.
Players could also directly share in media revenue for the first time. The league’s national media rights agreements expire in 2022, and if the new agreements increase media revenue by $100 million or more, 25 percent of the increased revenue above $100 million will go to player salaries.