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How will new labor deal affect MLS rosters?
by Ridge Mahoney, March 24th, 2010 3:05AM

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[MLS] How might the new Collective Bargaining Agreement affect how teams will stock their rosters, both in the short-term and for long-range planning?

There could be a lot more movement among teams for players who in many cases are just coming to grips with the pro game.

Players who meet the contract guarantee benchmarks of 24 years of age and three years of league service may be cut loose before the final year of their initial contracts.

Or, it could mean that instead of standard-four year deals which include three years of options, teams might offer initial deals of three years to avoid paying a guaranteed fourth year.

However, the fourth-year guarantee might also encourage teams to offer more renewals to players earlier in their careers if they can afford to pay more up front for those they really want to keep. Once a player meets the age and service benchmark, any subsequent contract is guaranteed on a yearly basis; i.e, the first year is automatically guaranteed and if a player’s option is picked up, that year is guaranteed, too.

This should help the league retain some players who might be otherwise tempted to go overseas, where guaranteed contracts are the norm. MLS will still fall short of even the Scandinavian leagues in terms of salary, but the prospect of a guaranteed deal fairly early in their careers is a good selling point. The best players who want to go overseas will go anyway; what the league needs to do is entice more of those on the bubble.

Until the specifics of a re-entry draft are finalized and one or two actually take place, that facet of player movement can’t be judged. Yet it will require more accountability for teams, since no longer can they elect to decline a player’s option and retain his rights indefinitely, as other teams will be able to select him at the annual salary he most recently earned.

The benchmarks are a little different for a player whose option isn’t picked up: if he’s 23 with at least three years of experience, he goes into a re-entry draft and can be claimed by any team at the salary he is scheduled to earn in that option year. Also eligible for re-entry is a player aged 22 with just one year of experience whose contract has been terminated and has been offered a lower salary, he, too, goes into a re-entry draft, where a team can claim him at his current salary.

What all this means is teams must decide fairly early in a player’s career if he’s worth keeping long-term, and paying more to keep, or whether a younger player who will earn less and won’t be guaranteed for at least three years is a better option. Teams on the cheap may elect to take the latter route, but other teams can get an edge in experience by snapping up those players and perhaps re-signing them once the existing contracts expire.

And, no longer can teams retain rights to a player out of contract indefinitely by making a “reasonable” offer, which the league never defined and in many cases wasn’t reasonable at all, certainly not to the player and his representative. A player at least 30 years old and with eight years of league service goes into a re-entry draft unless his current team offers him a salary at least 105 percent of his last salary; players age 25 and older with four years service can be retained only if the offered salary is the same as he earned in the last year of his contract.

In both cases, if his current team makes no such offer, any team can claim him at that price. In effect, it works something like waiver rules of other leagues for players under contract; if either his current team or another team acts, he cannot earn less. Kevin Hartman wasn’t worth $165,000 (his 2009 salary prior to Kansas City declining his option) to the Wizards despite playing every minute for the club the past three years, but he might have been worth that to another team.

However, these procedures for out-of-contract players do limit how much money they can make if they change clubs. It will be interesting to see what kind of deals are given to players who are taken in the re-entry drafts.

The entire option process has been revamped. Players objected to the unilateral options in standard contracts that offer no leverage to them; the new CBA loosens up the rules somewhat. A contract for a player age 25 with four years of service cannot contain more than two such option years, and if the options are exercised, they must include minimum salary increases as well if the salary is less than $125,000. If they play at least 66 percent of the games, the increase must be at least 10 percent; for players with at least 75 percent appearances, the increase can’t be less than 12.5 percent.

Since those players would have also met the contract-guarantee benchmark, a player whose option is picked up is guaranteed for the year at a higher salary. While many players in the past had increases for option years written into their contracts, the increases were by no means mandatory and often fell short of the new CBA’s percentages.

MLS has also brought some sanity to its lowest salaries; no longer will a young man be stuck at the lowest end of five figures playing for a supposedly professional team. For a regular roster of 24 players, the minimum salary is $40,000 (up from $34,000 last year) in 2010 and goes up five percent each year. But more important is that no player – even a homegrown youngster or academy graduate not on the 24-player roster – can earn less than $31,250.

MLS got by with slave wages for its developmental players – a designation that no longer exists – amid scathing criticism as players bunked three or four to a one-bedroom apartment or crashed on friend’s couches just to make the miniscule salaries (between $10,000 and $12,000 in some cases). That’s great money for a teenage kid living at home; it’s a sad joke to just about anyone in the real world.

These players will still have to get in at least three professional seasons to hit the guarantee benchmark, but it should encourage more good players to at least give the pro game, and the league, a shot.



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