[MLS] He isn’t calling it a boycott, but Galaxy player representative Chris Klein says he has no plans to be in New York Monday when Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between MLS and the players’ union are scheduled to resume.
Players are not obligated to attend, but several have been present during past meetings, along with MLSPU general counsel Jon Newman, executive director Bob Foose and director of player relations Eddie Pope. The point men for MLS are president Mark Abbott and executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin.
After months of declining to speak about specifics on the record, team representatives broke their silence to criticize the league’s reluctance to make significant concessions on three major issues: guaranteed contracts, unilateral (one-way) options, and freedom of movement within MLS for players waived, terminated or out of contract.
“We’ve been hopeful for a while that we were going to make progress but we don’t feel there’s been enough progress at this point to feel optimism on the players’ side,” says Klein, who was also involved in the last round of CBA talks five years ago.
That CBA expired Jan. 31; the two sides have agreed to extensions that pushed the deadline to Friday.
Relatively few MLS players get any portion of their contracts guaranteed. Exceptions are most of the foreign players and those that sign Generation adidas deals. Guaranteed contracts can backfire, as the Red Bulls found out when it was stuck for two years of salary paid to Jorge Rojas and Juan Pietravallo in 2008 and 2009, yet they are standard in most countries, even if such conditions aren’t always honored.
“There have been tentative agreements on a lot of little issues but I think on the meat-and-potatoes part, the two sides are very far apart,” says Quakes goalie and player rep Joe Cannon. “It’s disheartening right now, because none of the players – I don’t care who you are – likes the unknown. That’s the area we’re entering into right now. “
As per FIFA statutes, if a team wishes to terminate the contract of a player under contract, the club must negotiate a buyout with the player, but not in MLS. Players who have played out their contracts are free to negotiate with any other team, but again, not if an MLS player wants to bargain with other league teams.
The union abandoned a proposal that allowed the individual teams, not the league, to negotiate contracts. Cannon says the players want movement on all three core issues.
“There have already been certain concessions,” says Cannon, “but it’s time for us to draw the line in the sand and stick to our guns. Those three core issues are all equally important to us. It’s kind of like, maybe, asking a person which limb they want cut off. You kind of need all of them.”
The league has adamantly stated it will not contemplate any form of free agency for its players, even those who have played out their contracts. All other American pro leagues permit variations of free agency depending on years of service.
“We’re not talking about players leaving to play in England and Spain, that’s going to happen anyway,” says Klein. “Why our players leaving at an alarming rate to go play in Scandinavia? What are the reasons for that? It’s not just the money, it’s the fact contracts are guaranteed and once that contract is up he has the freedom to move.”
Agent Jan Schiefloe, who has worked many deals to get Americans into Scandinavian leagues, says guaranteed contracts are the norm, not the exception.
“I’ve never heard of a contract that wasn’t guaranteed,” he says, “even if it’s for three years, not the four years – two years plus options – that MLS usually offers.”
Typically, MLS players sign four-year deals, and the more experienced players might get a year or two “semi-guaranteed,” which in 2009 meant that a player on an MLS roster as of July 1 – the contract guarantee date – would be assured of having a full season of salary paid to him, barring extreme or extraordinary conditions.
The final two years of those deals are often option years, which give the league the unilateral right to retain the player’s rights. A team can decline the option and still keep the players’ rights while it negotiates a new deal or if he leaves MLS to sign with a foreign team, as long as the team makes a “reasonable” offer to re-sign him. MLS does not stipulate what constitutes a reasonable offer; in actual practice, any offer is deemed to be reasonable and thus sufficient for the rights to be retained.
“I don’t have all that information but what I can say is we represent all the players, American and foreign, and so for us it’s about getting those rights for all of our players,” says Klein. “I’ll be honest with you, we are not demanding that all contracts be guaranteed. What the league chooses to do, if they don’t have to guarantee someone’s contract and they end up doing so, we think that’s great. They make a commitment to those players. But for guys to not have that security doesn’t seem right.”
By declining an option, a team informs a player his contract has been, in effect, terminated, yet it retains his rights indefinitely. Kansas City declined the option on goalkeeper Kevin Hartman’s contract and thus hasn’t had to pay him anything this year, yet it also hasn’t traded him or negotiated a new deal, and so far has not waived him. The situations for several other players – Dave van den Bergh and Adrian Serioux – are much the same.
“Not only are they not getting paid, but their teams have shown no willingness that they want to sign these players, and if those players want to go somewhere else, those teams should get compensation?” asks Klein. “It just doesn’t seem right.”
Klein would not speculate what will happen if nothing is signed by Friday. Many teams are in Arizona and Florida for preseason training and matches, including the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando, Fla., which is supposed to kick off Friday with New York playing Houston and FC Dallas playing Toronto FC.
The Galaxy arrived in Tempe, Ariz., Friday and has games scheduled with Columbus, Kansas City (two) and Colorado during the next 10 days.
“I would guess there’s not going to be another extension, like we’ve had before, and after that I don’t know what’s going to happen, to be honest,” says Klein. “Whatever we have to do to move this thing forward, our players are willing to do.”