WASHINGTON – D.C. United forward Chris Rolfe left the offices of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at around 2 p.m. Wednesday in order to start preparing for a game that would determine his club’s CONCACAF Champions League destiny. He left behind negotiations that would determine the fate of the MLS regular season.
When Rolfe and his teammates took the field at RFK Stadium, they were unaware that that final terms of a new, five-year collective bargaining agreement had been hashed out by the union and league. They focused on what was in front of them: Costa Rican power L.D. Alajuelense and a three-goal aggregate deficit. They were playing to stay in the tournament and, perhaps, playing their last game for quite some time.
There had been talk of a strike when Rolfe and his D.C. teammate and fellow bargaining committee member, Bobby Boswell, left that afternoon. When they returned to the locker room late Wednesday evening, their CCL run was over. But the MLS season had been saved.
“Bobby and I had been in contact with people in the meeting room prior to the game and we had made our decisions on…the most recent topics. So obviously we kept that to ourselves and we didn’t know what the outcome was until we were done,” Rolfe said following United’s 2-1 win, which resulted in a 6-4 aggregate elimination. “For us to be able to put that aside and focus on this game and perform as well as we did, I think that’s very impressive for our guys. The last couple of days, in general, have been very wearing and very difficult.”
The league and union kicked off the final round of negotiations on Sunday and met late into the night in an effort to save the season. By Tuesday evening, with a resolution still in doubt, the players were prepared to strike.
“We had pondered that a few times leading up to today. It’s the position we were in,” Rolfe said. “Throughout the course of the negotiations, we had obviously voted on that.”
But after all that hard work, Rolfe and Boswell missed out on the moment of truth. They logged their votes on the current terms and headed toward home, and then RFK. D.C.’s Chris Pontius, the club’s longest-tenured player, said he was in regular touch with Boswell and Rolfe but had to change gears at around noon.
“I just turned my phone off and focused on the game. I had no clue [how negotiations turned out] until we came into the locker room after the game,” Pontius said. “We were all in limbo about whether we were going to be playing on Saturday [against the Montreal Impact in the MLS opener.] So it’s a good feeling knowing that we will.”
Despite that limbo, D.C. played well on a rainy night in the nation’s capital, far better than in last week’s 5-2 thumping in Costa Rica. United took the lead in the 36th minute on a goal from recently-acquired forward Jairo Arrieta, who once tormented LDA as a member of archrival Deportivo Saprissa. The game was chippy and the conditions were far from ideal. Coach Ben Olsen was ejected just before halftime. But two second-half goals seemed far from impossible in a match that was fairly wide open.
Unfortunately for D.C., LDA scored one of them, in the 71st minute. United secured the win on Fabián Espíndola’s 89th-minute penalty kick, but by then Alajuelense was safely through to the semifinals, where it will meet the surprising Impact. The mood following the match was far from despondent, however. United took solace in its improvement and expressed relief that Wednesday’s match wasn’t their last for the foreseeable future.
“It was a little weird, for sure, but I’m happy that everything got worked out,” midfielder Nick DeLeon said.
The CBA, terms of which haven’t been announced, does offer MLS players free agency (as long as they're 28 years old and have eight years of MLS service) for the first time. It reportedly raises the minimum salary substantially as well.
Pontius said he still hadn’t seen the specifics, but he expressed optimism that he and his colleagues were headed in the right direction.
“There were gains. It’s a baby-step process. This league is still pretty young, if you want to look at it in terms of other leagues that have been going for a number of years. We made good progress and we’ll look to make more in the next CBA,” he said.
Rolfe agreed. His team had won but lost. And the union, while forced to make considerable compromises, could feel victorious.
“I’m happy that we’re playing. I’m happy that we have free agency. It’s a win. Free agency was what we wanted,” Rolfe said. “The season is going to continue and we will continue to grow in the next CBA.”