According to MLS Players' Union executive director Bob Foose, the decision by New England and Houston players to share their portion of the prize money for contesting the SuperLiga final Tuesday night is a direct response to MLS blocking an attempt by team ownership to pay separate bonuses.
Foose sent out a release Monday morning which read: "The players on the Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution have agreed in advance of tomorrow night's SuperLiga final that they will split evenly the bonus money at stake in the game.
"The players have made this decision to show their solidarity and in protest of the league's violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with respect to the negotiation of bonuses for this tournament."
By decree of MLS, the winning team receives $1 million, of which $150,000 is apportioned to the players. The players' share of the runner-up pot is $100,000.
Dynamo operator-investor AEG proposed it pay a scale of bonuses for the team's performance in SuperLiga but was prevented from doing so by MLS, prompting the MLSPU to file a grievance. The MLSPU contends this action violates the CBA, which the parties negotiated last year. It expires in 2009. In an e-mail, Foose stated the grievance would go to arbitration in October and a decision is expected a few weeks after that.
At issue may be whether SuperLiga is a compulsory tournament, for which the CBA stipulates bonuses must be paid, or a non-compulsory competition not covered by the CBA. In an interview with the Washington Post Soccer Insider, commissioner Don Garber said: "Within our CBA, there is a separate agreement on bonuses for compulsory tournaments and it is up to the league's discretion to even pay bonuses for non-compulsory tournaments.
"SuperLiga is non-compulsory. If a Mexican team doesn't want to play or an MLS team doesn't want to play, they are not required to. It is an invitational tournament."
Garber also says - without providing a single financial detail, which the league is loathe to do -- that MLS and its marketing branch, SUM, incur significant risk by staging matches and paying travel costs for the Mexican teams.
What he doesn't say, but is quite true, is that as a single-entity league that pays player salaries as well as many operational costs, MLS is empowered to run and fund outside competitions as it sees fit. What he also doesn't say is to give the tournament credibility, rather than automatically including Hispanic soccer hotbeds like Houston, Los Angeles and Dallas, not to mention the massive New York market, MLS used competitive criteria to determine its SuperLiga participants rather than marketing concerns.
The tournament's format, which matches four teams from the Mexican league against four MLS teams in group play and subsequent knockout rounds, is a creation of the respective leagues and SUM, which has also consolidated Mexican league participation in the Copa Libertadores by staging a qualifying competition, the InterLiga, in the United States. Like InterLiga, all SuperLiga games are played in the U.S.
Unlike InterLiga and the CONCACAF Champions' League, the winner of which plays in the FIFA World Club Championship, there is no reward for the SuperLiga other than the prize money at stake. The prize money and stipulated players' share was publicized last year when SuperLiga kicked off; had Los Angles not lost to Pachuca on penalties in the final, the schism between AEG and MLS about bonuses might have surfaced then.
Without a Mexican team in the final, the tournament's true appeal among MLS fans will be tested. New England drew an announced crowd of 8,302 for its semifinal against Atlante last week.