The 2010 Major League Soccer season may still kick off as planned, without a delay in the start of the season, but the process to get to that point is going to be a messy one after labor talks went public on Friday, leading to an ugly back-and-forth that might just be the beginning of a lengthy battle.
It started with the players union going public on Friday and breaking a public silence that had stood since negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement began. MLS officials, after initially insisting they would not "negotiate through the media", responded to the union's accusations with their own defense on Saturday. The union responded on Sunday by calling into question the validity of the league's defense.
So where exactly do we stand? Who do we believe? If anything is clear from the weekend's back-and-forth, it is that there is no clear-cut villain in this. The players union painted MLS as the bad guy with its stories of mistreated players and unfair rules, and it was a narrative that was easy to buy into because it touched a chord with fans who weren't likely to side with a faceless collection of owners and league officials in the first place. That said, you can't help but wonder how accurate the portrayal is given the league's clear insistence that it has already offered up a good number of concessions.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Now the question is whether the two sides can find their ways closer to that middle in order to avoid a truly messy situation. The answer is yes, but only when the sides accept that changes need to be made.
MLS has already made the first major shift in strategy in this labor situation by publicly stating that it is prepared to go into the 2010 season operating under the old CBA (a clear change in policy after the league made it clear to the union in early negotiations that it had no intention of operating under the old CBA). As writer Kyle McCarthy laid out so perfectly on Monday, this maneuver puts pressure on the player's union to either accept a deal or strike.
Is the union as strong and determined to fight this fight as it will need to be? MLS clearly doesn't believe so, which would explain the willingness to operate under a CBA the league itself was demanding be scrapped less than two months ago.
Does this all mean the players don't have gripes? It is pretty clear they do, even as MLS officials do their best to explain away every argument the players have. No, the $60 million magic number offered up by MLS president Mark Abbott as the increase the league was ready to offer players never did sound completely genuine (and joins David Beckham's initial "MLS salary" of $250 million as inflated numbers used for effect.).
Players union chief Bob Foose shot down the $60 million figure, pointing out that it included, among other things, salary figures for teams that haven't even begun playing yet. He also pointed to percentage changes in the new deal that would see a decline in the growth of player salaries from 5.9 percent a year to 4.8 percent a year.
On the surface, that figure doesn't seem so damning. After all, there aren't many employees who wouldn't be happy with a 4.8 salary increase per year. While this is true, it ignores the fact that the face and business of MLS player acquisition is changing. Rapid MLS expansion is forcing MLS to use new methods to stock and strengthen the player pool. Chief among these changes are the designated player rule, increases in the number of international players and an increase in the money used to land young talent.
Why is this a major concern for the rank and file of the players union? It's simple. Not only would the new CBA shrink the growth of player salaries (if the union's numbers can be believed), but with more and more of that money going toward Designated Players, high-priced foreign talent as well as high-priced rookie talent, the players who will be squeezed in the equation are veteran MLS players.
Consider this off-season, which saw the largest-ever Generation adidas rookie class. MLS devoted a record amount of salary to landing this year's crop of top draft talent, which on its face is a promising sign, but when that comes in the same off-season where some of the best players to ever play in MLS are being squeezed out of jobs, you can understand why the union feels so strongly about wanting a stronger CBA in place to help protect them.
Does this mean MLS shouldn't spend money to attract top young talent to MLS? No, but it does offer evidence that perhaps some changes need to be made so that top veterans are paid what they deserve. That brings us to free agency, which MLS has made into The Untouchable Option. I have yet to hear a truly clear explanation for why intra-league free agency is a non-starter for MLS. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp guy, yet still couldn't understand the evils of MLS free agency despite multiple explanations from Abbott on Saturday.
Let's think about this for a second. How exactly would free agency within MLS hurt the league as long as the league has a salary cap? It really can't, not from the standpoint where skyrocketing salaries would be a concern. As long as there is a salary cap, a maximum limit on non-DP contracts, and as long as the league's player personnel department still signs off on deals, how could free agency hurt MLS?
It could have to do with MLS wanting to maintain control of player valuations, which could come under fire if teams were able to bid on free agent players. Suddenly a veteran highly-coveted by one team could potentially earn much more than his previous team, or the league, believes he is worth. This goes against the single-entity ethos the league is built on, and allowing it would ultimately give more control and freedom to teams and take away control from the league itself (No, I don't see the problem with this either).
Could it be that there are certain teams that are simply opposed to this because it would force them to compete against other teams for the right to keep their own players? Let's consider if a certain team or two had a history of paying lower salaries, and wanted no part of having to compete with other MLS teams for its own players, could those teams have enough pull with the league to keep free agency off the table? That's entirely possible if those teams had influential ownership.
Would having some competition within MLS for top players be such a bad thing? Considering how many quality players are leaving MLS for questionable alternatives abroad (or in Steve Ralston's case, an alternative in a lower division), how could free agency really hurt the league as a whole? As far as I can tell, at worst, it would force ALL teams to start getting serious about paying top talent, and just might help keep some of the talent that is leaving year after year.
If you listen to MLS officials, free agency isn't even that necessary because, according to them, the current system isn't nearly as restrictive as it is being portrayed. While it may be true that the current systems in place do eventually lead to players being able to move around and away from teams that don't want them, the arduous process currently in place winds up
badly hindering players who wind up seeing their options dwindle while they let the current process play out. This is why quality veteran players like Kevin Hartman and Dave Van Den Bergh remain unemployed just a month before the season, and why a player as respected and as decorated as Steve Ralston ultimately gave up on MLS rather than wait around for others to decide his fate.
Veterans like those deserve better, which is ultimately what is driving the players union. It isn't about the money, because the increases being discussed are marginal, but rather about the options that players, particularly the veteran players on whose backs the league was built on, can have as the league changes and grows. One veteran player said it best when he told me, "If players like Kevin Hartman and Steve Ralston, two of the best players to ever play in the league, are treated this way, what is going to stop the league from treating any of us the same way."
A new CBA could help keep that from happening, which is why the players appear more determined than ever to fight. If the league is serious about offering up new proposals that address these concerns, then a deal can and will get done, but if we see a player's strike next month, it would be pretty clear evidence that the offers being made by MLS aren't nearly strong enough.
Regardless of who is ultimately most to blame, if a strike winds up happening, both the players and the league will wind up wearing the label of villain.