[ANALYSIS] Any notion that a new collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union was imminent was blown out of the water
on Friday and Saturday.
After weeks of silence, union reps bemoaned the lack of progress on major issues and questioned MLS's seriousness.
On Saturday, MLS president Mark Abbott went public, explaining the league's position on various labor issues and putting the ball very much in the union's half.
If there is to be no MLS soccer this spring, that's a decision the players will have to make.
"We've communicated that the league doesn't have an intention of commencing a lockout," Abbott told the Associated Press.
The main issues involve bargaining power -- the power the league enjoys over players in contract negotiations.
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS. Not all player contracts are guaranteed until the middle of the season. That means teams have the power to force players with non-guaranteed salaries to make concessions if they want to stay on the team through the end of the season or simply cut them.
Also working in the league's favor is the summer transfer window -- MLS's "secondary" window but in fact the more important of the two windows. Players become available from abroad after their contracts have expired at the end of June, and their availability increases the bargaining power MLS has over players whose contracts are not yet guaranteed.
The number of mid-season roster moves MLS teams make have accelerated in recent years as they pick up players on the cheap -- on free transfers or on loan deals from clubs abroad -- and unload others.
In this way MLS is unique among major Americans sports leagues in that a huge supply of players available from outside the league works to suppress the bargaining power of MLS players.
MLS teams want the flexibility to keep contracts not guaranteed. Players want the security of contracts guaranteed year to year.
OPTION CLAUSES. Multiple-year and unilateral options also work in MLS's favor, meaning players don't know from year to year if they will have their contract picked up. That means, like with guaranteed contracts, teams have the leverage to force concessions out of players if they want their option picked up.
The longer a team can stretch out the time it has to make a decision on a player means the shorter the time a player then has to find another team, reducing his bargaining power.
On guarantees and options -- terms bargained between players and the league -- Abbott said Saturday that MLS "would guarantee a significant number of contracts, not all contracts" and "would limit the number of team-allowable options that we have in player contracts."
FREE AGENCY. The big issue on which MLS is not budging. Currently, there is no free agency within MLS, based on the single-entity status on which it was build and which withstood the challenge in protracted legal proceedings that began shortly after its launch in 1996.
Players aren't free to sign with another MLS team at the end of their contracts -- whether it's a player
on his way up who played out his contract with the intention of moving abroad or a player on his way down who's unwanted by his current team. Any other team within MLS must negotiate with the player's
current team if he is to move within MLS.
This issue is at the heart of much-publicized cases involving longtime stars Kevin Hartman, who's stuck in MLS limbo, and Steve Ralston, who joined USSF Division II AC St. Louis. Their previous MLS teams -- Kansas City in the case of Hartman and New England for Ralston -- no longer wanted them but no other team could sign them without the permission of their teams.
On the issue of free agency, MLS doesn't want to bargain away what it won in court at considerable expense.
And it doesn't want to give away what in part attracted investors to pay increasingly high ownership fees for in recent years. They were buying into a single-entity league with built-in cost containment.
MLS's view is that the international market in which it operates increases the opportunities free agents have to negotiate more lucrative deals -- they can and do so but just not at MLS's expense. At least monetarily.
In promotional terms, the loss of MLS's top young players to teams abroad -- whether as free agents or on
transfers in anticipation of losing them for nothing as free agents -- is a very serious problem for the league.
WHAT'S AT STAKE? The MLS doesn't open until March 25 when Seattle hosts Philadelphia. That means the league and players have four and a half weeks to reach an agreement before the season starts.
That doesn't mean there are no significant events that arise before then.
The Columbus Crew is scheduled to host Toluca of Mexico in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League series on March 9.
And the New York Red Bulls are scheduled to open Red Bull Arena on March 20.
This is also a World Cup year, though MLS will have a smaller role on the national team than at any World Cup since its launch in 1996. As few as three spots on the World Cup roster could go to MLS players.
WHAT'S NEXT? Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Monday in New York. The deadline for a new agreement in Thursday.