More to MLS labor imbalance than no free agency

By Paul Kennedy

As negotiators meet in Washington in attempt to reach an agreement that will avert MLS's first work stoppage, the major issue appears to be free agency.

When you think of free agency, you usually think of the big-money bidding that takes place in the other American sports leagues. For MLS players, it's a lot more fundamental than that. It's about freedom of movement, the right to have some say in where they play.

Right now, few MLS players end up playing out their contracts because -- well -- what's the point? They can try their luck overseas or go through the mechanisms put in place with the 2010 collective bargaining agreement.

Perhaps not his first choice -- a much-publicized deal to move to Hellas Verona of Italy fell through -- Norway's Viking is the new home of A.J. Soares, the starting center back for MLS Cup runner-up New England. Real Salt Lake backup midfielder Cole Grossman also moved to Norway, signing with Bob Bradley's Stabaek. Sporting Kansas City's Soony Saad is at BEC Tero Sasana in Thailand. Not exactly a trio of clubs to be confused with the glamour clubs of the world.

For those players out of contract wishing to stay in MLS, they can opt, if eligible, to enter the Re-Entry Draft, or if they don't want to move to a random club, they can negotiate with their existing club, leaving them back at square one. Of the dozen players who were out of contract and participated in the Re-Entry Draft, just one player (Atiba Harris) is projected to start at his new club (FC Dallas) when the MLS season opens and that's in part because its first two choices at right back are hurt.

MLS: Projected Opening Day Lineups

MLS clubs are no different than clubs in other American pro leagues who make lineup changes each season. Those personnel decisions are based on any number of factors: first and foremost, the desire to seek positional upgrades, then, likely, the need to resolve salary cap issues. What is different about MLS is that it operates in an international marketplace.

If you're the Green Bay Packers looking for a new starting strong safety, there are no places to find one outside of the NFL, except perhaps in the CFL. The Boston Red Sox don't have a lot of options for landing a new right fielder outside of MLB unless they're lucky to find one in Japan or perhaps South Korea or happen to stumble upon a Cuban who has sought asylum. The NBA and NHL have significant international presences with about 25 percent of their players hailing from outside the United States or Canada, but the rights to these players are tied up via an entry draft. The Celtics simply don't go out and find a new starting power forward in Spain.

On our projected opening day lineups, just seven MLS teams start a majority of players eligible to play for the U.S. national team. The ratio of U.S. national team-eligible to non-U.S. national team-eligible players is 45-55 percent. MLS assigns 160 international slots per season, eight per club, but they don't include all the players who previously took up international slots and now hold green cards, guaranteeing them the right to work here without any quotas. The bottom line: MLS clubs usually have a lots of room to seek out talent on the international market.

On the 18 returning MLS clubs, 51 players projected to start on opening day weren't with their current club in 2014, an average of about three new starters per club. That turnover of about a fourth of the starting lineup wouldn't be much different from that in the other American pro leagues. What is the difference is the number of imports from outside of the league. Of the 51 newcomers, 29 are imports, 26 foreigners, plus three Americans (Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo and Sacha Kljestan) who played in Europe in 2014.

Projected MLS Starters, the 29 Imports:
-- 12 Transfers, 12 Free Agents, 5 Loan Deals
-- 5 Designated Players, 19 Discovery Signings, 3 Allocation Rankings, 2 Rights Retained

Going back to our Packers' example, if you're their strong safety and they bring in someone to replace you in the starting lineup, you've got the various NFL free-agency mechanisms available to help you find a new team. If you're one of the 32 best strong safeties in the NFL, you should be able to find another team.

Now let's say you're a starting right back in MLS, and your club has decided to bring in someone to take your job. Not only can the club deal for a right back with any of MLS's other 19 clubs but it can also negotiate with other clubs around the world. On top of that, your club can do what it can't do within MLS and that's deal with the vast pool of right backs from around the world who are free agents. (The MLSPU will point out that these free agents have the advantage over MLS players of also being to able to bargain as free agents in their home markets and extract the best deal possible from MLS.)

If you've lost the starting job on your MLS club, you're at its mercy. You've got no free-agent mechanisms to move (or force a move) to another club even if you happen to be one of the league's top 20 right backs.

But here's the whammy: even if the current labor talks earn you the right to free agency and you're looking to find another club that will take you as one of MLS's top 20 right backs, you'd not only be competing with all other MLS right backs but a seemingly endless supply of right backs available outside the league.

Free agency will give MLS players the freedom of movement they don't have now, but it won't give them much protection as long as clubs continue to operate in an open labor market.

8 comments about "More to MLS labor imbalance than no free agency".
  1. Dan Brown, March 2, 2015 at 11:22 a.m.

    Although this article at least recognizes the most important factor in free agency, MLS still has to operate with free agency because it is in an international free market, it still misses the point.

    That is that it not only has to deal with an international market but that free market outside MLS is much larger than MLS's domestic market.
    Why is that important?
    Because MLS cannot improve in quality and therefore grow and compete with major leagues without having to deal in the international free market, and with free agents, because the best players in the world, or even top league squad players, do not exist within the domestic market that MLS can control by withholding free agency.

    This means that denial of free agency quickly becomes irrelevant as a method of cost control for MLS as it improves and draws more and more from the international market.
    And anyway just how undervalued are the rank and file of MLS currently - certainly not enough to threaten the financial stability of MLS if free agency were introduced which tells me the denial of free agency for the owners is not directly about money but about control and keeping the mortar of the single entity structure in place.

    The undeniable truth is that if MLS wishes to continue to improve its product then it will have to spend more on players and maintaining anti free market controls domestically can only stagnate the leagues growth in quality.
    The owners are essentially arguing for mediocrity because they don't want to compete in a real free market which of course is completely at odds with the big talk of being a top 5 league by 2022. The talk the talk but sure don't walk the walk.

    Denial of Free agency is about protectionism and control from the owners perspective while getting free agency is about freedom and leverage from the players perspective.

    The players are not looking for protection, they are looking to be able to operate in a true free market and maximise their value within that market whereas the owners want the complete opposite.

    If MLS grows to be a top league then there will be no denial of free agency.
    MLS cannot operate within a bubble of protectionism as other US sports leagues so the owners are just staving off the inevitable even if the players don't get free agency this time.

    Morally and even ethically in a business sense I find the owners stance quite odious but more importantly I see it as extremely myopic.

    The single entity structure was the most sensible and solid foundation with which to build MLS upon but the very security it offered now also threatens to strangle its growth.
    The owners need to be more flexible and go with the flow or free market forces are going to wipe their flimsy defenses built on hubris off the face of the soccer map.

  2. Mark Westhoff, March 2, 2015 at 1:06 p.m.

    Agree with you Dan. This article just touches the surface of what the problem is going forward in my opinion. Single entity MLS BAD for soccer in USA now, including all levels. Promotion and relegation would help...need US Soccer leadership to either pressure MLS and owners or invite other Div I league. Mediocrity will increase otherwise I think.

  3. Kenneth Cabral, March 2, 2015 at 1:24 p.m.

    Will free agency lead to significant player cost? If so, the league could incur costs beyond its means. As I understand it there are only two teams that are accually making a profit. MLS teams are businesses betting on future profits. If costs increase significantly will the betters fold?

  4. Dan Brown, March 2, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

    No reason free agency would increase costs greatly within MLS - there may be a small increase but players won't suddenly become better players and command more than their worth in a free market, free agency MLS.

    The Owners still have control of costs,they just don't get to dictate the prices.

  5. Allan Lindh, March 2, 2015 at 5:35 p.m.

    The problem is one of squaring the circle in several dimensions, but another approach would be to ditch the Designated Player Rule, add that money to the caps, raise the caps a little more, and then give veterans, 5 years say, free agency. Most of the designated players add very little to the league, and if teams wanted to spend their share of a higher cap on one or two old guys from England, let em. Time to stop having a few show horses, and start upgrading the soccer across the league. And after five years, only fair that a veteran player get a chance to choose where he goes, find out what he's worth.

    And while they are at it, start upgrading the refs. And clamp down on the dirty tackles. Too many bad injuries to good players by hatchet men.

  6. Phil Hardy, March 2, 2015 at 8:14 p.m.

    This article has made me change my mind. Maybe it's the end of my day and I am tired, but if it's a world market and MLS teams can search the world for talent at any position, why on earth will it not give players free agency? Why does it even care? Can it only flesh out entire rosters with cheap US labor?

  7. Allan Lindh, March 2, 2015 at 9:19 p.m.

    I agree heartily, Phil Hardy. If there are better players from South and Central America who will come here and fill out the rosters for less, so be it. The guys crowded out can play in the 2nd Div. The league will get stronger, so the USMNT players in MSL will be a stronger league. Sounds like a win-win. But MLS will not go for it, because better players would not come here and play for $35K, so they are filling out the roster with slave labor. So the players should sign a 1 yr deal under protest, and file an Unfair Labor Practices suit.

  8. Kent James, March 3, 2015 at 12:16 a.m.

    The question seems to be if free agency will lead to dramatic increases in roster costs (enough to threaten the league's solvency). The article mentions restrictions on foreigners (8 per team), but then suggests this is not very limiting (due to green cards), and if that is the case, then free agency should grant the players the freedom they desire without driving up the costs. But I don't know if that's the case. At the very least, as Allan suggested, players who have been in the league for a while should get to determine where they want to play (if that club will have them). I think the owners need to give the players a little more freedom; it needs to continue to develop, and becoming a bit more like the rest of the soccer world is a step in the right direction...

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