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S-word looms over union discussions
by Ridge Mahoney, December 4th, 2009 4PM

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By Ridge Mahoney

I'm starting to hear the S-word in talking to people about negotiations regarding a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between Major League Soccer and its players, and that word has nothing to do with salaries, as in minimums or maximums or caps or anything else.

The S-word is "strike," which could result if no agreement is reached by Jan. 31, when the current CBA expires. Discussions began early this year and haven't gone anywhere, from what I've heard, and the dynamics may have slid backward two weeks ago when MLS Commissioner Don Garber decried the involvement of FIFPro, an international players agency, which had petitioned FIFA on behalf of the MLS Players' Union regarding certain strictures utilized by the league in its contracts.

FIFA promptly issued a statement to the effect that it had no intention of meddling in a domestic labor-management negotiation. FIFPro and the MLSPU contend that by not guaranteeing contracts for their full duration and not permitting players unrestricted movement within MLS when their player contracts expire the league violates FIFA statues regarding transfers and movement between clubs.

For all its power and influence, FIFA is loathe to be dragged into any court in any land, and it seldom intervenes except in specific cases. Its transfer windows only apply to contracted players moving between associations in different countries, and thus, say, a short-term loan between two English clubs in October or an MLS trade in May that doesn't jibe with those windows doesn't break any of its rules. While option years may be more common in MLS than in other leagues, they are neither unknown nor "illegal."

MLSPU would certainly not reject its players earning more money, but in this negotiation its priorities are not increases in the salary cap and minimum salary. Its monetary issues are centered on institution of a 401(k) retirement plan, longer guarantees of player contracts, and some form of bargaining leverage for players within MLS when out-of-contract. In the latter two circumstances, MLSPU has some traction, but since U.S. courts - thanks to an expensive and messy lawsuit - have upheld the single-entity system under which MLS operates, there's no chance FIFA will jump into the fray.

A player signing a new MLS deal normally gets only the first year guaranteed, with the second year "semi-guaranteed," in effect, guaranteed for one-half of the season. Whether this violates a FIFA statute that contracts must be paid in full would require extensive legal wrangling, which isn't going to happen. MLSPU and FIFPro have, in effect, issued a threat, to which FIFA and MLS have replied, "Buzz off."

The deal by which defender Danny Califf returned to MLS this week points out another discrepancy, which involves international movement of players. Califf played out his MLS contract and left the league after the 2005 season, which he played for San Jose, to sign as a free agent with Danish club Aalborg, with which he won a league title but couldn't agree on a new deal, and so moved on to FC Midtjylland. The Danish club has agreed to transfer Califf to MLS, which required expansion club Philadelphia to cut a deal with Houston for his rights.

Under the league's single-entity structure, it grants rights to a player's previous club in perpetuity if it has tried to re-sign him. Thus, San Jose/Houston retained his rights, even though he left as what FIFA and the rest of the world would regard as an out-of-contract player free to negotiate with any club. Not so in MLS, which requires only that "a reasonable effort" to re-sign the player have been made for those rights to be retained by the league. Just what constitutes "a reasonable effort" is not defined except that just about in every case in the league's history such an effort has been made, which is an extraordinary strike rate, no pun intended.

MLS doesn't need to blow up the single-entity structure, as league officials contend, to allow some form of leverage. Other American pro leagues offer limited forms of free agency based on a player's years of service and other factors, and as long as MLS retains governing forces on finances, such as salary caps, the ruinous spending it fears by teams bidding against each other wouldn't materialize.

Of course, the league is concerned that any such concession can create a crack that the players will want to widen in future negotiations, but to save a few bucks it is losing many good players - both those of MLS experience and top college prospects -- not just because of salaries, but lack of leverage and security in contracts.

I'm sure the Dynamo has made what it and the league would define as a "reasonable effort" to re-sign Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, who are pondering overseas moves. Whenever and if they return, unless a different arrangement is brokered between now and then, Houston would control their rights.

Let's hope the matter doesn't hit an impasse, which can happen, even though neither side can afford, literally, to shut each other out. And let's hope it doesn't take a extraordinary turn of events, as was the case a few years ago when Landon Donovan sat next to Sunil Gulati on a plane for several hours to broker an agreement for U.S. Soccer and its players regarding national-team and World Cup bonuses.

MLS doesn't need Donovan and Gulati to figure this out. It needs sense, as in common. That is the operative S-word.

 



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