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Fans will get more than lip service

Within minutes of the announcement that MLS and the players union had signed a new collective bargaining agreement, my phone went berserk. Texts, e-mails, a phone call from a ski resort in the Italian Alps -- everyone conveyed the same message: “Whew.”

That really says it all, doesn’t it? Relief, exasperation, the comedown of a close call. It defined the moment and the feeling.

Of course, many pundits, privately and sometime publically, never really thought a work stoppage was imminent, despite all the tactical rhetoric. No matter how much either side had to gain from a deep, unified entrenchment, the thinking went, both had more to lose from a work stoppage.

Especially in this overstuffed annum of soccer -- the World Cup, USA-England, a Saturday afternoon Champions League final, the Philadelphia Union’s maiden season, Red Bull Arena, powerhouse club friendlies all season long -- that seems to have soccer on the verge of hitting the turbo boost.

A work stoppage would have not only pulled the foot off the accelerator, but also yanked on the emergency brake, and maybe even spun off the road. And ultimately, the fans -- the passengers in this native Detroiter’s overwrought metaphor -- are the ones who would’ve been thrown from the car.

Now they won’t be. The reality is, the supporters rode shotgun from start to finish.

“Without fans, there is no league,” MLS president Mark Abbott told me on Monday. “Clearly we were cognizant of the fans throughout the process because at the end of the day the fans need to know that the league is here for the long-term.”

Abbott didn’t mention any specific examples, but I hope he saw the video made by a clever group of Real Salt Lake fans who showed us all what MLS might look like if, say, replacement players were used. It wasn’t pretty. Pretty scary, actually. But very funny.

And it showed just how centrist the fans were during the negotiations. Unlike with so many labor fights, the struggle for the hearts and minds of MLS’ fans saw neither the league nor the players come out on top. Those RSL fans, like the other fans with whom I spoke with and exchanged e-mails, understood and appreciated the arguments on both sides. They granted that the points in contention were valid and needed to be addressed.

They also didn’t really care. Or they cared so deeply -- about their club, about the league, about the very game -- that they couldn’t fathom anyone seriously considering anything drastic that might threaten it all. The truth is, even with soccer’s current momentum we socceristas are still not, and maybe never will be, very secure with our place in the U.S. sportscape. We are that guy who switches to an empty bulkhead seat on a plane then assumes every passenger coming down the aisle will be the one to kick him out.

But with the new CBA signed and sealed, we can relax. Break open the peanuts. Order a beer. The seat is ours -- in the front of a ’62 Vette, in a first-class bulkhead row, or, best of all, at the midfield stripe.

Greg Lalas is the editor in chief of MLSsoccer.com. His “Outside the Box” column appears every Monday.