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.”
It would be helpful if the "point person" for the Board could explain to them that the sport whose foundation is solid in this country needs the benefit of aggressive and visionary action now. The current system of indentured servitude that our players operate under is an embarrassment to US Soccer and its growing fan base. Unfortunately it is going to take either a strike or some independent leadership by the Commissioner to solve the current standoff. Hopefully the players do not cave in. They are doing the next generation of players in this country a great service and will be well remembered for this action. Unfortunately our current MLS leadership just does not understand the game as it is played and administered at the top levels and seems to think "they have invented the wheel"
Pray for wisdom to prevail!
What if the players struck, MLS stopped play, and nobody noticed?
Would Americans be able to ignore the dramatic increase in popularity of the game, the record number of world cup tickets we've bought, and just chalk MLS up as another example of soccer's unpopularity?
When it all comes down to it, until the sport gets the fan base of the other sports in America. The players should be allowed to go play whereever somebody is willing to give them the money unless they sign a sealed contract that is simple enough, you will be guaranteed this amount per season to come play for us, if you get hurt that is a part of working for us, your contract should still be paid once independent doctors validate the injury seriousness. Ever hear of workmens comp? The league needs to get to the same point of other nations quick and in a hurry, otherwise, don't be surprised when all of our talent keeps going somewhere else to play for the money they deserve.
the players are asking for a bigger per diem and better hotels?... you gotta be kiddin me. Stop being babies, act like an adult, use your brain and understand that this league needs to survive. Until the base salary in the league is a decent figure, (50,000- i don't know.), the players need to be thankful they are playing.
If after another 10-15 years this can't happen, then the MLS needs to answer for themselves. At this point, the MLS is just trying to expand their presence to be a legitimate professional league that has more than 16 teams.
Give the league a break and let them have a little more success, they have done a fair job of keeping the league afloat, building stadiums and attracting more investors. The more player complaints, the less motivated investors will be.
The thing we all must remember is that this must be treated as a business. The failure of previous profesional leagues was primarily a result of bad business decisions. NO league=no players and everybody loses. We are not yet ready for BIG $ soccer (frankly, when I look at the BIG sports in the US, I'm not sure I ever really want to get there) Let the league grow and prosper a little and hopefully when all our youth soccer players get old enough to buy tickets, we'll get a better product and players will get better contracts.
If there is a work stoppage, it will probably finish the league. I don't think either side gets it! I don't know all the specifics, but anyone who is released should be free to go anywhere. That should be illegal to control someone's destiny, when you have told them they are not wanted. That does not exist anywhere to my knowledge. I still believe the game would thrive in this country if soccer people would buy tickets. There is enough of us now and I know very many who don't bother. That is a said statement for soccer people!!!
With the economy at the shape it is in, the players & owners need to think about the fans, as they work on a new contract. The looser if the players stike will be the fans. And more than likely the end to pro soccer in America.
The main issues seems to be guarenteed contracts, base pay and free agency. The MLS owners are refusing to budge on these issues and they appeal to the players by using their single entity approach, "the players and league are all in this together and as the league prospers so will the players." as if the players and the owners are partners. They are not. It is an employer/employee relationship. I sure would like to hear what the MLS provides in the way of average compensation and benefits package for league officers and management as compared to the average compensation and benefits for the "American" players. If there is a large gap in favor of the MLS group, then the players have an argument and should be allowed a little more security in their contracts or least flexibilty to negotiate better deals with other teams? If the compensation packages are relatively the same for both groups then the players are wrong and should adapt the MLS's approach and get on with it. The players still have it within their power not to sign with the MLS and try to sell their talents overseas. It won't be very long now until the fans recognize that the MLS puts out an inferior product.
One might think that a league which can commit $8 million to a player who, while the most talented in the league, performs when he's interested and watches, as in the recent Netherlands match, when he's not, would have a few extra bucks to throw at earlier-in-the-season contract guarantees for the rest who are struggling to make a living at what they love to do
It isn't just the threat of a strike that is threatening the reputation and future of MLS. Here in Portland, MLS has been pushing a deal that would damage the league's credibility for years to come. The problem is that MLS wants the city to renovate PGE Park, built in 1926, for MLS soccer, even though the stadium will never be able to meet MLS minimum requirements for basic spectator facilities. For example, even after renovations, PGE Park would have 324 fewer restroom fixtures than the minimum required in MLS's "Venue Design Guide." MLS is getting around the issue by waiving its requirements, with the blessing of a dysfunctional city council. But here's something even crazier. MLS has also waived its requirements that all seats be individual seats. That means over one-third of the seats will remain bench-style seats, which allocate only 18" per seat location, while the average adult measures 21" wide at the shoulders. So, for every seven tickets sold, only six people, on average, will actually fit! So, if this deal goes ahead as planned, imagine what the reaction will be like on opening day. It will be a fiasco of major proportions, not just for Portland, but for MLS.
Donovan is too important to the Galaxy and the league to move on to Everton this year. He should honor his new contract of 2 Mil. per year at least for the coming season. Beckham wont be around for any team this season and possibly never because of his recent serious injury. As much as I would like To see Donovan play in England to play at a higher level and improve his game, he should man-up and fullfill his obligation to MLS. He will still be young enough next year to go to Everton, if he can negotiate an honest deal with MLS, Galaxy, Everton and all parties concerned. He needs to be around his National Team players for now, training in the US for the World Cup.