NEW YORK (AP) - Major League Soccer is prepared to start the new season this weekend even if a labor dispute with its regular referees and other match officials isn't resolved in time.
The dispute is between the Professional Soccer Referee Association, which represents MLS referees, assistant referees and fourth officials, and the Professional Referee Organization, which was created by the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS in 2012 to manage match officials in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues.
The PSRA has filed a pair of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the PRO of bad-faith bargaining and making threats against PSRA members.
PSRA members voted 64-1 last month to authorize a strike.
''We will be opening up this weekend with referees, and we are absolutely in a position to have a contingency plan in the event that those discussions don't end positively,'' MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on Tuesday.
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''We have so many things that we're gearing up for with our 2014 season. Nothing is going to stop us from having a strong opening and to continue to grow this league.''
PSRA chairman Steve Taylor said there are economic and non-economic issues.
''They have not made significant movement,'' he said of the PRO.
Answering questions from reporters and fans during a season kickoff session, Garber said increasing the league's television ratings is a priority. Viewers for national television broadcasts during the regular season dropped from an average of 180,000 viewers in 2012 to 170,000 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
''So we need to figure out why that's happening. Obviously, there's a lot more competition than there ever was. Viewers have more alternatives. We need not to fight that but accept it and address it,'' Garber said. ''Our games have been scheduled all over the week. It's been difficult even if you work in the league office to know what time and what day a game is taking place. So our new agreements will be very, very, very focused in terms of a specific date and time.''
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