MLS strike = disaster for Union

(Published at the Philly Soccer Page on Monday, Feb. 22, 2010.)

If Major League Soccer players strike, it could be a disaster for Philadelphia Union.

An expansion franchise needs momentum from the get-go. Right now, the Union have it. Opening day is a month away. Their stadium in Chester is progressing. Philadelphia’s going to host the final World Cup tune-up for the U.S. National Team. People are excited. Philadelphia soccer is on the way up.

But a strike that delays the MLS season could kill that.

When sabers rattled this weekend over the league’s failure to meet the players’ demands for free agency and guaranteed contracts,  it became very clear that a strike remains possible. The league responded by saying they’ve offered to spend another $60 millionon players and pledging to start the season without a new labor contract. (For more on free agency and the other key issues, click here.)

None of this is good for soccer fans in the Delaware Valley.

Philadelphia isn’t Seattle or Toronto, with a stadium accessible by public transit in the heart of an international city. The real models for the Union are the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. Like the Union, each has a stadium outside the nearest major city, has major league teams in the big four sports, and isn’t what you’d call an “international city.” For each, the stadium is a singular destination. (Check out my 2007 story for more on the comparison.)

Chicago’s Toyota Park, for example, sits in the middle of an industrial nowhere. You go there, and then you go home. Few dinner options afterward, no walking to the train, one lonely pub on the drive home.  It’s out of the way for most people. It’s a great place to watch a game, but that’s about it.

Sound at all like Chester?

Sure, the most devoted and excited fans, such as the Sons of Ben, will head to Union games whether the season starts in March or August. But the most devoted fans may not be enough to guarantee success in a crowded sports market like Philadelphia, particularly with the club located outside the city without train access. Dallas surely draws its most devoted fans too, but the 9,883 fans per game they drew in 2009 don’t make them a success.

The Union need to sell the fringe fans on their product, and there’s nothing like a work stoppage to sour a fan base. (Ask Major League Baseball and the NHL.) They need to maintain the momentum they have right now, the good will shown toward a franchise that looks like they’re doing a lot of things right on the field. Unfortunately, this labor dispute is outside their control.

In the end, the Union could get toasted by a union – and the management that won’t give in.

What do you think? How do you think the Union would fare if the season starts late? What do you think the prospects of a strike are? Weigh in below.