MLS executives and investors yearn to be big time. They’re aiming to build a “league of choice” that drives the growth of a “new soccer nation” or two. They eventually expect their 19-year-old league to be mentioned in the same breath as the most storied circuits in Europe, some of which have a century-long head start.
That all sounds great to MLS players, who surely find a bit of painful irony in commissioner Don Garber’s frequent use of the phrase, “league of choice.” In their lack of choice, and on their pay stubs, most MLS players see a stark difference between their league and its counterparts abroad.
“You can see the landscape of other professional leagues in the United States, in which free agency comes in many different forms. Soccer’s different,” said FC Dallas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, a member of the Major League Soccer Players Union's five-man executive board. “Throughout the world, soccer has unrestricted free agency. It is there. It’s the norm. Certainly we’re working toward that. We feel like if we’re going to be a league that’s one of the best in the world, I think it makes sense to abide by those rules.”
MLS has no intention of following that path. It’s not interested in the unrestricted free agency common throughout the world, nor in the more limited versions used by other sports' leagues in North America. MLS officials firmly believe the measured growth and careful, centralized control that have carried it this far remain the keys to a prosperous future. As a result, the league and its players are at an impasse. Their collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the month, and three formal meetings between the sides, including Tuesday’s in Washington D.C., have frustrated yet emboldened Kennedy and his colleagues.
“At the moment, free agency is not even part of the conversation for them. It is for us, so that’s where we continue to fall extremely far part in negotiation,” he told SI.com.
L.A. Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, another executive board member, said, “Free agency has to be in this deal for the players to play on opening day. I think that’s the bottom line.”
Starting Feb. 1, the players will have the option to strike. They likely won’t that day, in part because the 20th MLS regular season doesn’t kick off until March 6. There are preseason camps and tournaments scheduled, not to mention CONCACAF Champions League dates for D.C. United and the Montreal Impact. More importantly, negotiations can proceed through February. Five years ago, MLS continued to operate under the previous CBA, and players continued to be paid, while a new one was forged with the help of a federal mediator. The deal was signed just a few days before the 2010 season began. A similar extension isn’t officially in place this time around, according to multiple sources. But one remains likely.
The six weeks until opening day represents an eternity around the bargaining table. Initial probing and posturing can grind talks to a halt, with neither side compelled to compromise or make the first move. The first few meetings might have all the dynamism of the beginning of a middle school dance. Then, under the duress of a genuine deadline, the gears start to turn. Faced with an alternative less appetizing than compromise, like a work stoppage, opposites begin to attract.
The union understands this, and it isn’t in a panic. But it also doesn’t see much of a light at the end of the negotiating tunnel.
“We’re extremely far apart on the issues that are most important to the players. We’ll certainly keep at it, but at this point, from where we are, it’s difficult to see the path and how we’re going to get there,” MLSPU executive director Bob Foose told SI.com. “Fundamentally, we have a significant disagreement with the league on how the guys who have built and continue to build this league should be treated within the MLS system.”
Five years ago, the union consented to the re-entry draft, a mechanism that freed veterans from organizations that opted not to re-sign them or pick up an option. The draft offered the prospect of movement, but not to a club of the player’s choosing. It also erased his leverage by leaving the player to negotiate only with the team that drafted him.
Neither side would divulge details of their respective proposals, but it's clear that MLS isn’t interested in taking another step toward free agency. The re-entry draft was the compromise.
“I thought it was a tremendous way to deal with specific issues. I liked it when it was conceived and I think it’s been successful,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott told SI.com last month.
The union argues that free agency will help the league attract and hold on to better players and deploy them more efficiently, all while allowing it to continue controlling costs under a salary cap. But MLS points to its unique place on the soccer landscape. It remains the steward of a nascent sport at home and must account for wealthier and more powerful competition abroad.
“Because we function in an international market and the clubs that we are competing against for players are not subject to our salary budget, to have free agency within the league doesn’t provide us with the certainty that the union says it does,” Abbott explained. “When the union says they can offer cost certainty under free agency, it’s not true because we have to compete against clubs all throughout the world.”
Free agency isn’t necessarily a binary issue, as the complex systems in other North American leagues indicate. There are restrictions and age and service thresholds, rights of first refusal, compensation and franchise players.
“There’s a lot that reads in between the lines in free agency, and that’s the gray area between the black and white,” Kennedy said.
But so far, the black-and-white perspective prevails. Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley, he of the $6 million annual salary, told reporters this week, “Should we get to a point before the season where things and negotiations aren't where they should be, we are ready to strike, and we are united as a group to make real progress in terms of the way players get treated in this league.”
If a big-name DP with something to lose is on board, Dunivant said, then the union’s mandate is clear.
“I fully reiterate those words,” the Galaxy veteran said. “[Bradley and I] spoke [Wednesday] and we’re on the same page and I think all the players are on the same page. We have to have free agency to sign this deal. There’s no getting around it anymore. This is where we stand. We’re firmly entrenched in that.”
Said Kennedy, “The one thing the leaders of this league, the core group, understands is that we are willing to strike for this and we feel more united and more educated than ever. That is a huge asset.”
Abbott released the following statement to SI.com and other outlets this week:
“It is premature at this stage of the discussions to speculate about the possibility of a work stoppage. Although there are a number of issues which still need to be resolved, that is true of every CBA negotiation, and we are committed to continued negotiations."
The union is as well, and the next session could happen as early as next week. Dunivant claimed the relationship between labor and management remains good, “much improved from five years ago,” he said, and that there’s been no “standing up and yelling” so far. And it’s still early. The calendar offers plenty of give. Whether each side will do the same, however, is uncertain. It probably will be easier for the two sides to find common ground on compensation, the players’ other primary issue. The union isn’t interested in going after the DP rule and, so far, the league doesn’t appear committed to adding a fourth slot. The players would like to see greater reward for proven MLS talent and a higher minimum salary, arguing that a more valuable roster slot inevitably will attract (or forge) a more talented player. They’ll likely get something. When it comes to numbers, there’s a middle ground.
“We invest every year more than we did the year before and there is no doubt we will be investing more. The discussion is on how much more and in what ways,” Abbott told SI.com last month. “We’ve never said this is about reducing investment or lowering our costs.”
So if MLS players strike for the first time, it will be over their rights within a single-entity system that has grown in ways no one could have anticipated when it was conceived.
“This league has developed in a way where it’s just not the same league it was 20 years ago when they made all these rules to protect the teams. We feel like now is the best time to start moving the rights for the players forward to align with the growth of the league," Kennedy said. "The last CBA prepared us for this one. We digested it, we've taken it in and we've planned and prepared for this moment."