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One date change means nothing
by Ridge Mahoney, March 2nd, 2010 3:02AM
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TAGS:  mls, soccer business


The on-going negotiations, or lack of same, on a new collective bargaining agreement by MLS and the players’ union have prompted the league to push back the date by which teams must be roster and salary-cap compliant.

Since neither roster size nor the salary cap has been set for the 2010 season, this move is not only logical, but necessary. The league has not set a new date for such compliance but a good guess would be shortly before the March 25 season opener when expansion Philadelphia plays at 2009 expansion sensation Seattle.

That might also be a target date for the union to strike, which according to several league representatives, many players say they are willing to do. A week ago, MLS offered to operate the 2010 season under the same conditions as the document that expires Jan. 31; instead, union executive director Bob Foose issued a statement Thursday that the players would continue to train and play, for the time being.

This is far from business as usual, which can only occur if the players agree to operate under terms of the old CBA for the 2010 season, under which terms they cannot strike and the owners cannot lock them out. Otherwise, MLS and the union must agree on a new CBA on their own volition or some other mechanism – mediation and/or arbitration – is brought into the scenario to forge an agreement.

The only other alternative is a work stoppage, which is more than theoretically possible.

A statement released by the league office Monday said: “MLS is delaying the roster compliance date, originally scheduled for March 1, while discussions continue over related topics with the MLS Players Union. The roster compliance date will be set in the next few weeks.”

Neither roster sizes nor salary-cap specifications were written into that CBA, which did include minimums – certain percentages of the cap -- that each team must “spend” on their salary budgets. The MLS Board of Governors sets the salary cap season-by-season; several members wanted to bump up the cap last year but voted instead to keep it right around the $2.31 million figure it set for the 2008 season.

As anyone who’s followed these negotiations knows all too well, the “related topics” regard guaranteed years of contracts, which are nonexistent in most cases except for international players and those signed to Generation Adidas deals; the unilateral options tacked onto the last two years of most four-year contracts; and the lack of leverage for players waived, terminated or out of contract.

Any freedom of movement among players within MLS is derided as “free agency," and absolute anathema to MLS. A glance at the recent history of other American sports leagues reveals many forms of fettered player movement: restricted vs. unrestricted free agents, Plan A and Plan B free agents, etc.

MLS grants teams a right of first refusal -- as do many other U.S. pro leagues -- in some cases, such as for players who are waived. Teams also retain rights for players whose options have been declined and those whose contracts have expired, which requires a team wishing to sign those players to acquire their rights by some manner of a trade.

Other leagues have formulated tiers of free agency; while MLS is different in that it is a single-entity enterprise, one can’t blame the players for fighting to get at least some independence beyond the very narrow boundaries of MLS. While it follows complex formulas to calculate and stay within its salary budget, MLS can suppress salaries since there’s no real competition. It can’t match the salaries even Scandinavian teams give to young players, so it just ignores any aspect of the market except itself.

More time is better than no time, but the pushback of a date doesn’t mean the league is any more willing to edge closer to the players’ position.

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