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Donovan can be game-changer in union talks
by Ridge Mahoney, March 19th, 2010 3:57PM

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TAGS:  men's national team, mls, soccer business

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Can the magical presence of Landon Donovan loosen the impasse that MLS and the MLS Players Union can’t seem to extricate themselves from?

He flew to Washington, D.C., Thursday to join about two dozen player representatives, and all manner of executives and lawyers from the opposing sides trying to reach deal by which a threatened strike can be averted. Though theoretically any agreement prior to kickoff of Thursday’s game in Seattle between the hometown Sounders and expansion Philadelphia could avoid a work stoppage, the players want a deal done by Monday at midnight.

If the issue isn’t resolved by Tuesday, I wouldn’t want to be a representative of the other Union, that of Philadelphia, disobeying the orders of manager Peter Nowak to get on the plane for a flight to Seattle. In the past few days, predictably, owners of several teams have issued threats of imminent doom if a work stoppage ensues, and there isn’t much doubt that if the MLS players do strike, every Pedro, Giorgio and Jermaine who came into a preseason camp the past two months on trial and was a citizen or had a green card would be speedily recalled.

I can’t decide which nightmare is more gruesome; scab teams playing in front of those few fans willing to walk past picket lines of shouting, chanting, angry players, or soccer-specific stadiums – such as gleaming, splendid, brand-new Red Bull Arena -- empty and silent. Worse to envision is what happens in the days and weeks that follow, as the stubbornness digs in on both sides, and owners forego paydays and players miss paychecks.

As the league’s most prominent American player, Donovan can be a factor in the union’s push for more rights and better working conditions, yet he’s also a prime example of how wildly MLS will twist its own rules.

He’s been “grandfathered” as a non-Designated Player since the inception of the DP rule more than three years ago. The league bargained a unique loan-share arrangement with Bayer Leverkusen to bring him to MLS in 2001, “sold” him to Leverkusen years later, then bought back his rights from Leverkusen after a few frustrating months in Germany and dispatched him to his home base in Southern California. When he wanted a loan to Bayern Munich last year in the wake of David Beckham’s dalliance with AC Milan, he got it.

For a league that plays hardball over a few thousand dollars in moving-expense reimbursements and ties its players to non-guaranteed deals with all manner of restrictions and conditions, the treatment of Donovan isn’t bending over backwards, it’s a pair of cartwheels rounded off with a triple back flip.

Should the best players get preferential treatment? Of course, they should, and do. Do they use the power and influence they wield to aid causes other than their own? Not always, but in Donovan’s case, yes.

Several years ago, when U.S. Soccer and its national team players squabbled over payments and bonuses, Donovan spent several hours of a plane trip seated next to then-executive vice president Sunil Gulati to negotiate a deal. Donovan lobbied Galaxy management for better training and travel conditions before and after the arrival of Beckham, and in a press conference Wednesday prior to his departure for Washington, D.C., acknowledged the Galaxy and AEG granted their players better treatment than most MLS teams.

Owners have whipped up a great furor in the past week by ranting that the league’s single-entity status could be challenged in court if they were to grant free agency, though it is only one of five or six core issues the players want addressed, and by using one of its existing mechanisms – say the allocation process – MLS could distribute players whose contracts have expired without free agency, per se. It could funnel them into a special draft, or re-classify them as discovery players.

More vexing to the players is how an MLS team can decline a player’s option, in fact terminate the contract at that salary, yet retain his rights without any financial obligation until, and if, a new contract is signed. A player loses his salary, his medical benefits, his 401(k) contributions, etc., indefinitely, until and if a new deal is consummated. Teams retain a right of first refusal to players they have waived, which isn’t unlike some waiver provisions of other U.S. pro leagues.

The option mechanism, which often kicks in after the player has completed just one season and runs for the next three, is strictly at the league’s discretion. In most countries, and most other American professional sports, both sides must agree to exercise an option. Players would like the number of option years reduced, and/or two-way options implemented.

The players would also like some flexibility in the duration of contracts, rather than the four-year deals offered to most domestic players, while foreign players routinely sign deals as short as 18 months or two years. While they would also like the contract-guarantee date of July 1 eliminated, a different condition could be adopted: a percentage of a player’s contract being guaranteed, as is common with other pro sports in America. The better and more experienced the player, the greater percentage of his deal is guaranteed.

Donovan can hardly be a poster child for downtrodden MLS players. His contract is guaranteed, he’s not likely to be terminated, waived, or have his option declined any time soon. If MLS is dark next week, he will probably try to finagle a return to Everton somehow. And since most opposing coaches and players have been convinced from day one of preferential treatment granted to the Galaxy, he can’t really play that card, either.

He’ll have to tip-toe on a thin, sharp wire in D.C., so as not to be perceived as a league stooge if he advocates a settlement that union leadership doesn’t like. Yet he can’t ignore the opportunity to speak up should talks break down, or flare up, because there’s no doubt that in high-stakes meetings, and on the field for club and country, he can change the game.



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