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Robbie Keane voices support of MLS players strike in pursuit of free agency

WASHINGTON – Robbie Keane doesn’t need to strike. He probably has more to lose than to gain. But if the collective bargaining deadlock continues and the MLS Players Union votes to walk off the job come the first week of March, the LA Galaxy star said he’ll be “100 percent behind them.”

Speaking to this week in the nation’s capital, Keane acknowledged that he’s in a “different situation than a lot of the players” in MLS, and he wasn’t referring to his growing collection of medals.

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Keane, a marquee foreign player with a big name and big stats, had the luxury of making his choice while negotiating with the “league of choice.” He could name his price and his destination, and it’s worked out pretty well for everyone. LA has won three of the past four MLS championships. Keane is an MVP who made $4.5 million last season, and the league has been able to enjoy and market the exploits of its most prolific foreign signing.

The issues about which the union feels most passionate – intra-league free agency and player compensation – don’t apply to Keane. But he made it clear that despite his privileged position, he still identifies and sympathizes with his colleagues and is ready to stand with them when necessary.

“I’m supportive of the guys. I spoke to [Galaxy teammate and MLSPU executive board member] Todd [Dunivant] about it and he asked my views and I said, ‘I’m 100 percent behind this. We all have to be united together,'" Keane said.

When asked if he’d participate in a strike, he said, “Yes, of course. If 90 percent of the players in the league want that, if 55 percent of the league wants that, it should be. It’s a majority. If the majority wants it, I’m behind it.”

Keane’s declaration of intent is significant because there have been questions raised within the MLS community about whether the union could keep a varied constituency together during a work stoppage. Those who make too much might not feel aggrieved. Those who make too little may not be able to afford a missed paycheck. Some foreigners haven’t experienced the frustration or uncertainty faced by domestic players on expiring contracts. Others might not feel the same sense of ownership or personal investment in soccer’s American/Canadian future. This may not be everyone’s fight.

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The MLSPU is in frequent contact with members via each club’s two or three bargaining representatives and its front office staff in Bethesda, Maryland. They’ve been preparing for this moment for years. Nevertheless, the diversity in membership can present a challenge.

Keane checks several of those aforementioned boxes, but said he’s ready to roll up his sleeves.

He acknowledged that he was surprised when he learned about the absence of free agency in MLS because it’s now taken for granted in Europe, and he argued that adopting it would be in the league’s best interest.

“If you want to move forward, you certainly have to have the same way of thinking as the European clubs and the European leagues,” he said. “Players should be able to have that freedom. I feel like the players feel like [MLS has] a hold on them. They have a leash on them and they can’t get off. I think it’s a problem for the players.”

He concluded, “I think it’ll help. I think it’ll help grow the league even bigger. Players will want to come here even more so.”

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The union has a long way to go to make its case to league executives, who remain steadfast in their belief that the careful management and centralized control that has carried MLS so far in 20 years will fuel future growth. The sides remain far apart on the primary issues following talks this week in Washington, and the players’ most significant leverage likely is the threat of a strike. Unanimity, or something close to it, is crucial.

A couple of players outside the league’s domestic middle class have spoken out, notably Toronto FC's Michael Bradley and Real Salt Lake's Álvaro Saborío. 

But Keane’s vote of confidence is an important one. If a player with nothing to gain is willing to walk the picket line, then the union may have less to lose.

"I think we have to stick together," Keane said.