The 2015 MLS opener -- LA Galaxy vs. Chicago -- is less than two weeks away, amping the pressure on MLS and the MLS Players Union to reach a new collective
bargaining agreement. Will the players get (some form of) free agency they insist must be part of the agreement? Will owners dig in their heels and dare the players to strike? The easy part
was getting an agreement on minor issues. And now? The tough part: player compensation. For all the marbles: free agency. ESPN FC
. Meeting with a federal mediator, the two sides agreed
to terms, according to a source, on such issues as moving expenses and public appearance fees, all things they needed to get out of the way to leave the last two weeks for the major issues.
The five-year collective bargaining agreement the players and management reached in 2010 came five days before the start of the regular season. This year's opener is on March 6, leaving only a week
to reach an agreement if it is to be achieved in the same time frame as in 2010. 2010 MLS-MLSPU Dates: Jan. 31:
MLS's first collective bargaining agreement expired.
Offer accepted by both parties for Federal Mediation.
Players voted 350-2 to strike if no agreement reached. March 20:
Agreement on new collective bargaining agreement
reached. March 25:
MLS regular season started.
The major issues are compensation -- maximum team budget
(salary cap) and minimum player salaries -- and free agency. From the union point of view, one isn't more important than the other but free agency is clearly the sticking point. Owners are willing to
invest more in terms of salaries but seem steadfast against doing anything that would impact the integrity of the single-entity system.
Says MLSPU executive committee member Dan Kennedy
: "I don't want to say [free agency] is priority No. 1 because there is so much that goes into a CBA. But certainly we feel as players that every other
sports league in the world -- whether it's soccer or not -- enjoys a form of free agency, and we feel that we're at a level where we're playing in the same arena. We need those same rights."
Some parties are already planning for a strike. Ticket agency StubHub has already posted
a notice that if matches are canceled, fans will get full
refunds. If matches go ahead as scheduled with replacement players, "the tickets are yours to use." ESPN700 (Radio).
In an interview last week with Salt Lake City radio station ESPN700, Real Salt Lake owner
Dell Loy Hansen
said he did not expect the opening matches to go ahead if there was a strike.
Hansen said the owners will dig their heels in on
the issue of free agency. "I don't think that's really going to be on the table," he said. "I know the owners are really willing to step forward with some increase in pay, so I'm hopeful we have a
positive outcome and we play that first game."
Hansen was optimistic for a speedy resolution of the talks.
"I think we'll get there," Hansen said. "Whether we get that first
game or not, I think, is the game of chicken that always gets played. I'm glad [RSL's 2015 MLS opener is] in Portland. Our first [home] game is on the 14th." Vice.
Who's the most to gain by MLS giving players the right to move freely between league clubs? Not the league's best
players, suggests Jorge Arangure Jr.
, citing the example of DeAndre Yedlin
, who moved from Seattle to Tottenham after only
two years in the league. If a player has marketability on the international market -- where free agency exists -- he'll be able to move on a free transfer or in the case of Yedlin, he was able to
force the Sounders into selling him for a substantial fee to avoid losing him for nothing down the road.
MLS's mid-level players, who have played in MLS for years but don't have many
opportunities at foreign clubs, are those who have no freedom to switch clubs as they see fit at the end of their contracts. "There is a bitter reality," says Arangure, "in that MLS wouldn't be where
it is today without the domestic mid-level player, but that it won't get to where it wants to be if this type of player continues to fill up roster spots." And this bottom line from management's
perspective: "The strongest bargaining position from the league's standpoint is that these mid-level players have minimal playing alternatives overseas. These are the players who most need a domestic
league to exist in the first place."
Why then are the players so vocal and seemingly united about pressing for free agency? "The short answer is that in any employment setting there are
certain principles of fundamental fairness which if not addressed are worth striking over, and that the players are more united than ever and have prepared for this moment," said Richard Motzkin
, executive vice president and managing executive of Global Soccer at the Wasserman Media Group.
Strike Fund ...
to the latest filing of the MLSPU at the U.S. Department of Labor, the players' union had net assets of $4.5 million at the end of 2013. At
the end of 2009, it had less than $1.4 million.