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MLS and Players Union stage marathon talks
by Ridge Mahoney, January 27th, 2010 7AM



[MLS] The news from the collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Union isn't really newsy, but might be interpreted as encouraging. Representatives of the two sides met for eight hours yesterday at league headquarters, and discussions are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

On hand for MLS were Commissioner Don Garber, President Mark Abbott, Executive Vice President Todd Durbin, and others, including members of the league's legal firm, Proskauer & Rose. Jon Newman, General Counsel to the MLSPU, was among those on the players' side of the table.

Progress, or lack of same, has been hard to track, yet eight hours is a long time for two opposing sides, regardless of the issues, to tolerate each other. Some incentive to cut a deal is certainly being provided by an expiration date of Jan. 31, this Sunday, for the current CBA, yet other forces are wielding influence as well.

FIFA reiterated two weeks ago it wouldn't intervene in negotiations after the international players' union, FIFpro, issued proclamations that league policies violate FIFA statues regarding the transfer of players and administration of player contracts. This move, a dubious one at best, failed to strengthen the players' leverage, and their occasional public ripostes at what they perceive to be the league's onerous policies regarding freedom of movement hasn't seemed to sway league officials.

On the management side, while Garber and Abbott present a united front, there's some sentiment among certain ownership groups to get a deal done while retaining the league's structure and philosophies. A low-paying league can't really throw down the greedy-players card to gain public sympathy, and they can point to the recent rapid rate of expansion, which opens opportunities for players to get jobs, even if most of them don't pay very much.

Time lost with players on strike and/or locked out can't be recaptured, and the league took severe enough hits last year in season-ticket sales and other revenue streams to fear any more disruptions. If the economy is recovering, it is doing so very slowly, which both management and labor are acutely aware of.

Rebuffed by FIFA, the players may have to give up on any form of free agency for the time being, even for players who re-enter the league after leaving it to play overseas. Its onerous policies of one-way options and impairment of player movement aren't likely to change. Adding a second fully guaranteed year to contracts would give the players some added security - most contracts are guaranteed only for the first year and semi-guaranteed for the second - and so would a retirement plan.

A viable retirement plan along with incremental increases in the minimum salary and salary cap might be the best they can achieve this time around. Yet a week or two of impasse and pickets outside training grounds might be needed to achieve such modest gains, and neither side can really tolerate anything longer or more vitriolic than that.

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