MLS 2015 Countdown: 'A game of chicken'

DAY 11: 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.
March 5:
Offer accepted by both parties for Federal Mediation.
March 11:
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 ...

According 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. 

5 comments about "MLS 2015 Countdown: 'A game of chicken'".
  1. R2 Dad, February 23, 2015 at 2:09 p.m.

    The only reasonable solution is if these mid-level players are replaced by MLS Academy players who perform at high-enough levels to be eventually sold internationally. When MLS has clubs selling on their Academy players on a regular basis, it solves several problems: 1) reasonable ROI on money clubs sink into Academy teams, 2) Less/no need for non-US players on MLS rosters, 3) overall higher level of play/better TV contract, assuming MLS management hires coaches that have incentive to play something other than kick-and-run. Ultimately, the quid pro quo that US Soccer has with MLS will have to be broken. Long-term, pro-rel will be required--it's the transition that's tricky. Perhaps that is why the new LA group of investors is a big group rather than one large (powerful) investor who is used to getting his way. The transition to pro-rel can only be sold as a concept AFTER all these new stadiums have been paid for (ie 10 years after construction). I expect more money to be thrown at players to compensate for the lack of Free Agency for the 2015 contract as well as 2020. By the time the 2025 contract rolls around, stadiums are paid off, Academies are producing, everyone will be screaming for Free Agency (w probable court involvement by then), and some purchase/ integration of the multitude of leagues out there into something resembling a coherent system. The beauty of pro-rel is that MLS won't have to own the player contracts anymore, which could end up being a huge liability for them later anyway (see NFL concussions)--better to assign that to the clubs. This is all contingent upon Garber pulling a George Washington and walking away from the MLS monopoly, doing what's best for the country instead of what's best for his wallet and ego. Just my 2 cents, would love to hear what the legal community and MLS have to say.

  2. Brent Boone, February 23, 2015 at 3:06 p.m.

    This comes from a non-legal background, but I'm trying to figure out what I'm missing. The owners don't want free agency because of the possibility of soaring salaries, and the players want FA for the freedom of club movement after a contract expires. Offer those mid to high level non-DP players a form of free agency that says tenured players, say 3-5 years in the league, will become free agents at the end of their contracts BUT the signing team can only offer the free agent 25% more than their last year's salary. All this would be done within a salary cap that escalates yearly. Who would not want a 25% raise. And if the player has become that good within the length of their last contract that a team is willing to sign them as a DP (the signing team must have a DP slot open) then the player can take the nice big raise. But players must understand that they are not all of sudden going to rake in new salaries of 3/4x what they are currently making. The league needs to continue to grow at a controlled pace. The owners need to know that free agency is coming!! The players have earned that right to make decisions on what team they sign with when their contract is up!! They just need to make the salary increases involved with free agency manageable.

  3. Kent James, February 23, 2015 at 4:31 p.m.

    Both players and management have reasonable requests/concerns. Players should have the right to have a say in where they play, but complete free agency might create a situation where the richest clubs have all the best players (as it is in the rest of the world, which, unless you're playing teams from other leagues (Champions League, e.g.), I don't prefer...our "champions league" is not quite worth that sacrifice in parity) and possibly cause financial problems (as happened in the NASL). Something like what Brent suggested might work, or free agency with some sort of overall salary cap/profit sharing formula (so if the league makes more money, the players get a decent share, but growing player salaries aren't able to bankrupt the league). I don't think the league is yet able to withstand a players' strike (though unlike other American sports strikes, this will not be a case where the strikers are millionaires, so they might get greater sympathy from the public). I hope they're able to get a fair resolution before the season starts!

  4. Allan Lindh, February 23, 2015 at 5:10 p.m.

    Up to the players to set aside free agency, for all the reasons discussed above, and focus on salary cap and minimum salary. It's the guys at the bottom that are playing for chicken scratch -- raise the cap, and the mid-levels will get their share. Competitive balance really is the leagues strong point. Get rid of the designated player rule, and put all that money into the cap, and you would have a league. The old guys lend prestige, but across the league they have often not contributed on the field.

  5. Hack NSack, February 24, 2015 at 1:15 a.m.

    MLS wants to keep the single entity system, right? MLSPU wants more choice to move to a team of their choosing, or so everyone seems to be writing.
    Why don't they loosen the qualifications for the waiver draft at the end of the year (terms of service based qualifications). Eliminate, the matching requirement. Just have the league negotiate with the player on a new salary for the player and then the player choose which team to which his salary may be offered. If no likes his salary requirements, then he is free to join another league (whether that is in Europe, Africa or here in North America. This way single entity is not broken and the players get what they wish (to choose the team they go to). Maybe even add something in that says if the player does not find another job by the start of the season then they have the opportunity to re-negotiate their salary and then join another team of their choosing by such and such a date (say 1 month after the start of the season).

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