The 2020 MLS season was weird, remarkable, and in some ways disastrous for the league. While it was not necessarily my preference for teams to travel around the nation playing matches, especially considering the high number of players and staff that ended up with COVID-19, it did in some way represent momentum that the top brass were not keen to lose.
2021 is looking, in at least some ways, significantly better. The odds that players could receive a vaccine before the summer are at least present, if not yet ideal, and progress is being made there. It’s enough to make me feel a little better about teams playing matches, but it’s not perfect.
Given that potential momentum, it’s particularly frustrating that the league has put players in the position of having to threaten a work stoppage, which is well within their rights after MLS enacted the force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement. Especially after a year in which many players were infected and contagious as COVID-19 burned across the nation, and in which there seemed to be some disregard for player safety from on high, it is disappointing to see the league take that sort of action.
Especially now that news continues emerging about what MLS is asking for: An extension of the existing CBA in a move that MLS is hoping will save money. And well it may, but from an outside perspective, it’s a tremendous about-face from the league, who are not exactly flooding teams with huge, CBA-bound contracts, even now.
It is the sort of thing that saps my excitement about the season, in part because I am not a fan of the league, but of Real Salt Lake, and in part because it’s a tremendous disrespect to the players who have quite literally put their health in the hands of the league.
So what is worth being excited about in 2021? The answer is all closer to home, which brings with it some nerves, too.
A reformed roster
Look at that roster. I mean, it’s not done, I hope (we still have a blind spot or two, I suspect, and we have very little in the way of exciting wingers these days,) but for the first time in years, I feel a renewed sense of optimism for it.
The arrival, one hopes, of Bobby Wood in the summer (or perhaps sooner?) is one such move that is tremendously exciting, though it’s notably not because he tore it up in the Bundesliga or any such consideration. Instead, it’s because we know he can be great, and we have seen him be great at the U.S. international level and at the 2. Bundesliga level, which I’d argue is much closer to the level of MLS.
Rubio Rubin, similarly, is an exciting addition, and not because he’s a sure thing. He represents potential that seemed lost, but a surge in USL may give us just enough to be optimistic. It’s the sort of move that, when combined with Bobby Wood, gives us something to look forward to in 2021.
The signing of a Generation Adidas player is an interesting one, too, in the form of Bret Halsey: It’s the first time in years that we know a draft pick has an MLS roster spot, and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses him, if at all.
A new hope
The idea that we could have a new ownership group in place at some point is something that is giving me hope. This position now, by which we are still owned by Dell Loy Hansen, is not something that is sparking much joy in my life, especially because it seemed like a move with immediate momentum from the outset. (Perhaps that is in no small part because the league has taken over the sale, and they are apparently considerably less leaky than the Hansen family.)
It’s one thing giving me a sense of optimism for 2021, but it also brings with it some uncertainty. After nearly a decade of ownership under Dell Loy Hansen, a pivot toward a style less focused on bottom-line optimization and one of sustainable, compassionate growth would make a huge difference in my perception of the club. Until it happens, it really is a bit draining.
I guess where I’m really landing with all this is that it is an uncertain time for all of us as Real Salt Lake supporters, and this whole waiting game we’ve been asked to play is not a fun one.
But I am reminded of the positive things we’ve seen from the club in recent weeks. Player movement, for one, comes to mind — and it’s not that we’ve made huge signings, but there’s at least reason to be optimistic about the future. The unveiling of The RSL Way, for another: Setting out a vision from the people currently running the club is important, and one hopes that would apply to an ownership group, as well. Aaron Herrera earning his first U.S. international cap is another, and wasn’t he quite good last night?
Preseason will likely soon be upon us, and it might be the perfect time to take stock of things, reset our expectations, and move forward. Here’s hoping that starts with a new owner at the fore.