By Ridge Mahoney
It's not surprising that joy and relief emanated from the American soccer community upon hearing the news a week ago that federal mediator George H. Cohen would join the CBA negotiations between MLS and the players union.
So it’s also not surprising that angst and worry and consternation has spewed forth in the past day or so, with word coming from player representatives that the two sides aren’t close to an agreement despite several days of discussions with the mediator present.
“Mediator” is not fed-speak for “saviour,” and Cohen, no insult to either man intended, is not Mahatma Ghandi. Reports that he has been “hired” are wrong; such would be the case in a private mediation, which this isn’t. This is also not arbitration, in which the two sides present their cases and the arbitrator, if no agreement is bartered in the meantime, picks one or the other.
Though Cohen is the Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, he’s not empowered to hammer out a deal, to lock MLS executives Don Garber and Mark Abbott and union honchos Jon Newman and Bob Foose in a dark, dank room with only bread, water, and Blackberrys permitted until a deal is done. He can coax the two sides closer together, but he can’t jam them face-to-face and scream, “Make nice!”
“I have to make it clear he wasn’t hired,” says Commissioner Garber. “He reached out to us and to the union and asked if we’d welcome him. This is a service that the government provides to see if they can add some support. If by meeting with a federal mediator that can be helpful to both parties, we’re open to doing that, and anything else that can help bring the parties together, but it’s not a traditional mediation.
“I don’t know how much clearer we could have been in our statement. There’s a difference between private mediation and what he’ll be doing. The taxpayers are paying for George Cohen.”
While the two sides have agreed on some matters, they are relatively minor issues such as per-diem payments, the quality of hotels for teams on the road, etc. Garber has taken a more active role in the discussions the past few months and he is also updates the league’s Board of Governors on status of negotiations.
“I’ve been in every meeting for the last couple of months,” says Garber. “It’s not something I did the last time around [when the last CBA was negotiated five years ago] and it’s not something I did in the months leading up to the last two months, but I have been since then. It’s been my number one priority. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with our group trying to reach an agreement and I’m also the point person for the board.
“It’s not productive for me to talk about the actual negotiations. There’s lots of things going on and I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about the status of the negotiations. I haven’t discussed that with anybody and I’m not going to start now. We’re hopeful we can reach an agreement, we’re aware the players have had issues, and we’ve addressed those issues during the negotiations. The players still are looking for more changes and we’ve not been willing to do that, so we’ll continue to work hard to see if the two sides can get closer.”
Garber is standing firm on the league’s stance that Landon Donovan will return to the Galaxy next week as per the original terms of his loan. Everton manager David Moyes and Donovan have spoken hopefully of a month-long extension, until the U.S. domestic transfer window closes April 15.
Garber wouldn’t comment on what might happen if the MLS players choose to strike, which would probably happen in the next week or so, because the players have stated they will not start the season without a new CBA: the league opener is March 25. Prior to joining Everton, Donovan signed a new four-year MLS contract that increased his salary to more than $2 million per year.
“Getting Landon signed to a long-term contract and renegotiating while there was still two years left was important for Landon and it was important for Major League Soccer to lock up, in essence, arguably the best American player of our generation,” says Garber. “It’s an important achievement and speaks to our long-term commitment. Certainly when you sign a four-year contract at several million dollars a year the expectation is that you’re going to play for the team that signed you.
“I don’t think at any time the Galaxy or the league believed that Landon would stay past the loan period. He’s an important player for the league and the Galaxy and they certainly wouldn’t have torn up his old contract and extended it for significantly more money if they weren’t serious about having him be a major participant to the league and to the club. There was never any expectation from us or the club that he wasn’t going to be coming back.”