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.