Monday Morning Centerback

MMCB: On the MLS labor mess


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.

  • DClee

    Can you honestly believe the money they have made has paid them back for all their losses over the years including stadium building, operation costs, etc…


  • DClee

    I like a lot of Fischy’s points but feel that everyone also needs to look at the situation from the perspective of we are lucky to have a professional league in the first place. I root for DCU and I can’t help but think of guys like Chris Pontius that if it wasn’t for MLS then where would he be right now. It might not even be in soccer or in the USL as before MLS you had to either make it overseas or you were pretty much a forgotten player. So if you weren’t developed enough then you were done and you could not continue to grow where one day you may get the chance to play in Europe which I think Pontius will or get a shot to prove yourself in a national team environment.

    Now I definitely want the players to make more and get a fair cut of any success the league is able to build to. However up to this point the league is mostly in red ink or losing money and while some teams are starting to come around and turn a little profit it still has a way to go. Free Agency to me allows for the deep pocketed owners to have the best chance at success, i.e. Real Madrid while the smaller teams are left behind. I like the parity that the single entity brings where one year your favorite team can stink but the following year it can make the playoffs where anything can happen i.e. RSL in 2009. To me you have the best of both worlds right now. You can bring in a top player like Beckham, Ljundberg, Angel, etc… to see him play but not have this outrageous spending that is bankrupting teams all around the world right now. And your team can go from worst to first in a matter of a season and because of having a pro league we get to set up international friendlies to see the best in the world play at our stadiums.

    My point is simply this…I think MLS has not reached the point of throwing out everything or most of everything the league has worked for over the past 14 seasons to get to this point and as long as they are increasing the cap even if it is a penny then everyone should be happy and lets get on with the season. The worst thing that we can have happen is to have some ugly situation that sets the league back if not kills it.

    While I respect and am grateful to players like Pat Onstad for all they have done for the sport in this country I also realize that he gets to make a six figure salary for doing something he loves that without MLS I doubt he even gets close to this income in his soccer career if there ever is one. And the owners are the ones that have put up with the financial losses and continue to bleed money to give all these players that extra opportunity to play in the USA and for the few that are profiting they deserve the reward RIGHT NOW for the risk of believing in this league when it could have folded not even 6-7 years ago if not for some of the owners(Anshutz) believing in it and not giving up.


  • alexandria

    I keep reading people talk about van den bergh and hartman, Hartman could be at the wizards camp right now but he didn’t want to sign the deal the wizards made because of the length of the contract as for van den bergh dallas has said they would keep him but only for a lower salary, and if not they would trade him. For all you free market enthusiast if this guy is worth his salary then their would be a demand for him but their is not. He either needs to stay with dallas and take the pay cut. Or work out a deal with another former team. It’s like Allen Iverson, no one wanted him at his salary especially at his age, free agency or not, his choices where simple, retire or take the pay cut. I don’t here anyone crying for him.


  • DCD

    Exactly. It’s a hybrid of sorts. To some extent, the “product” is competition. Yet, teams also are competing with each other for revenue, to some extent. How this odd hybrid model comports with antitrust law is what the SC is dealing with in American Needle.


  • Mike

    NBA then. Although the NFL’s cap is pretty hard. MLB has a truly soft cap on the other hand. Still, my point is free agency and salary caps are not mutually exclusive.


  • Shadowdub

    If the financial constraints are so great, why are there so many cities that are bidding to get teams? Why would anyone want to get involved in a league that is not making money?


  • Cabrito

    MLS and its players cannot afford a work stoppage. They aren’t that stupid. This is a World Cup year, which offers the league a great opportunity to cross-promote. Also, with Philly joining the league and two new stadiums debuting, it would be suicide to have a lock-out.

    They will work under the previous agreement until next year.


  • alexandria

    No they aren’t but they do destroy parity within the league, as for an NFL example everyone tries to run away from detroit, or an NBA example, a steve francis who doesn’t want to play for a particular team. The whole thing about this is everyone is equating free agency with a guy being waived or his option not being picked up, the two sides in my opinion aren’t arguing about guys that are sellable, but more like guys like abe thompson, or older players. SO, i think we are arguing a moot point most guys that are good either want to go overseas, or like beckerman want to be traded to another team for a new start or a better chance. I think the older players see the younger players having it better than they ever did and they want to know what do they get for getting the league to this point, the problem for me is and I think the majority of us can agree, the majority of these guys just aren’t going to cut it as the level of play increases, we’ve all been saying they need to improve the product on the field. You can’t improve it without getting rid of some of the dead weight.


  • shawn

    It is a hard cap, not a soft cap therefore you can’t push the limit of the cap. This is not hard to understand. What mike is talking about is that certain cities or teams might be more desirble to play for because of who they are or where they are.


  • Jeff from Tallahassee, FL

    This is exactly the reason why free agency is a non-starter for management. MLS as a league structure is so different than other professional sport leagues in the U.S. and other soccer leagues in the world. Player contracts are with the central office and not the clubs. Free agency would completely change this dynamic and put the power with the clubs. My guess is that we will see free agency once the majority of the teams (if not all) are profitable.


  • Free Agent

    I am not an antitrust lawyer, and I understand the distinctions between the MLS and the NFL, but free agency is one factor the SC has weighed in determining “single entity” status. My guess is that the owners will not take even the slightest risk if it might jeopardize the single entity structure. They credit it with saving the league during the lean years of contraction. The fact that the Kraft and Hunt families own NFL franchises, and the fact that the NFL is contending with this antitrust issue right now, only reinforces my view that antitrust concerns are driving resistance to free agency. Regarding Shadowpub’s point about the surplus of eager investors and owners, I do not know why so many investors appear willing to invest in the league. My guess is that Soccer United Marketing provides some financial footing for the league, but the league itself probably still loses money.


  • James Wedding

    That’s funny, as an FC Dallas fan, Hunt Sports Group came to mind. I’d guess between Kraft and Hunt you have the makings of a top notch cheapskates club.


  • Jeff from Tallahassee, FL

    MLS is part of the free market for soccer players–when you view the MLS as one club that has satellites in different cities (which is the current business structure). When players are out of contract, they are free to market themselves to any soccer club in the world including other teams in the U.S. (just not in MLS).

    The teams in the MLS are not individual clubs as we tend to think of them, but instead are just different branches of the central office.


  • Jess

    If I were the head of the Players Union, this would be the best possible year to have a strike in terms of bargaining power.

    Don Garber wants to avoid a strike because Garber is asking for 50% raise to $3 Million per year salary for himself, its a World Cup year, the Beckham debacle is still fresh in everyones mind , the new NASL wants to compete against MLS, & Vancouver & Portland are supposed to join the league in 2011.
    The owners of Seattle, Toronto & LA want to avoid a strike at all costs because of season ticket holders. The Red Bull owners want to avoid a strike at all costs because of their new $200 Million Arena. The Philly owners want to avoid a strike because its their 1st year & they have a new stadium .

    A player making $50,000 a year who already probably has a 2nd job (because everyone is 1 injury away from MLS retirement) has much less to lose than an owner paying $200 Million for a new stadium. If I were the president of the players union its not a question of “Should I strike?” Its a question of “When should I strike?”


  • sylc

    But a player making $34,000 (the minimum) and for reserves sometimes less, they have much MUCH more to lose than an owner.

    It is a question of “should I strike?” because the lower wage-earning players are not properly represented by the union. Conrad, Keller, Onstad, and Wolyniec are the ones we’re hearing from. We’ve heard nothing from a Pontius or a DelaGarza, which leads me to believe they aren’t properly informed or they don’t support it and have been told to keep their mouths shut.


  • ian woodville

    Why does management want to restrict “free agency” within the league? First, never underestimate management’s urge to have complete control, even if no money is involved. Second, “free agency” would put the several inept front offices under that much more pressure. Who really wants to play for a team like the Red Bulls, with a new coach every year and constant roster turnover? Or perhaps for DCU — who balked at pay increases for younger veterans and then wasted thousands on an unfit Argentinian. And I doubt that New York is the only outfit where experienced players would like to jump ship, even if it meant no particular increase in pay. It’s not as if most MLS teams have focused on developing younger players and establishing a stable lineup.


  • Mike

    Have the details of the Hartman and VDB negotiations been publicized? (serious question – I don’t know)

    I ask because there is a difference between a guy getting blackballed and a holdout. Holdouts happen all the time, and it is frequently the player who is making the more exhorbitant demands (see: Michael Crabtree; see also: JD Drew).

    Do we know whether any teams would be willing to meet their demands?


  • Mike

    Off topic much? No club in the world has to sell a player it doesn’t want to sell. Nothing in the current negotiations would affect this either.


  • alexandria

    You just answered your own question. Thats why? honestly what young player would play for the revs, if they new there was no way they could make a move abroad. I mean honestly I think the majority of the teams have solid leadership, except those teams owned by the hunts and kraft. And they are the oldest members, so this is probably a culture clash between the owners as well, but I think right now, those two big players are not willing to tip the bucket yet, and rightfully so, they made this league have supported it from day one, sometimes its hard to let go, and they aren’t ready to yet. The players though are risking a lot. Question do you have to be in the union, or are their non- union players?


  • Eurosnob

    DClee, I agree with you that MLS has done a lot of good for US soccer, but the league can do a lot better. I cannot get over the fact that players like Andrew Jacobsen (Union took him away from DCU in the expansion draft) were paid 36K last year. Although 36K may be a decent pay for some areas of the country, in DC it puts you on the brink of poverty line. If the league wants to make money, they should first become a feeder league for top European leagues. This would require MLS to stop penny pinching and focus on developing their soccer academies and creating opportunities for young players through the reserve league. Collecting $10 mil. from Josy Altidore’s transfer is several times more than the total salary cap for the MLS team that he played for.


  • Graeme

    Bottomline – is MLS still insisting that the players sign away their FIFA rights? If so, then stick to your guns. If not, then get to the table, work it out, and quit wasting all of our time.


  • ian woodville

    I am sure that you don’t want to hear this, but being the original investor in a business doesn’t give you the right to take all the profits or to exploit your employees. Believe me, no one would pay money to watch the Hunts or Kraft or Anschultz play soccer… so the players have also made a contribution from the beginning.
    I would think all you free market zealots would support the players in this because what they are asking for is the right to sell their services to the highest bidder, once their original contracts are done. Isn’ that what Ayn Rand would have wanted?


  • rustico210

    Call The players union and let them know what you think the # is 301.657.3535

    I just left a message for Eddie Pope.

    For those of you who wish to contact MLS The email is feedback@mlsnet.com Sorry no # for them.


  • war

    Feel sorry for Hartman. They talked about him on Phone-in today. Since the “league” didn’t pick up his contract, he doesn’t have insurance for his family and cant work anywhere. Things need to change fast or Norway and Denmark will be the new MLS very soon.


  • David

    That’s BS Ives. There is not the slightest argument in favor of the conclusion that the players should share any blame for this situation. My understanding is that they are not asking for significant new expenditures; rather, they are asking for relief from oppressive contracts, which, quite frankly, as a contract attorney, I’m prepared to conclude are unenforceable.

    How you can have a situation like Van den Bergh’s where his team has elected not to pick up the option on his contract, but still controls his economic future, is beyond me. The players’ union’s lawyers have to be idiots not to realize this is an unenforceable restriction.


  • Seriously?

    A few points Alexandria. First, just to get it out of the way, the NFL has a hard cap (well, it did, until they have an uncapped year) – look up the Wiki. Next, why does free agency destroy parity? I’d say it allows for more parity, because it keeps a team from being able to collect too much talent. Your point about Detroit or Steve Francis have nothing to do with free agency. Free agency didn’t cause player to not want to go to Detroit, the fact that the team was horribly run and terrible on the field did. Until a few years ago people were coming up with silly reasons to say why NBA players didn’t want to play in Boston, when the reason why they didn’t want to come was because the team and it’s management sucked. New management came in, turned things around, and suddenly, Boston isn’t a terrible place for NBA players to play any longer.

    Free agency doesn’t ruin parity, bad management does. If everybody has the same resources, then it’s up to teams to get the most out of those resources. Players want 2 things, to get paid as well as they can, and to play for a winner. All the other stuff is just window dressing.


  • ETJ

    If by cheapskates club you mean the type of club that keeps MLS alive, then yes Kraft and Hunt make a very good cheapskates club


  • ETJ

    I admit you’re right, sorry for disagreeing with you… that’s the last time I trust the league’s figures


  • srfinger

    Single entity structure would still be in place for guys new to the league. All the players want is for guys who have performed well under the full terms of their initial contract to have SOME bargaining power.

    It seems like the league is doing everything in its power to gain the flexibility to pay rookies, new foreigners, and DPs, while restricting what they have to pay for a guy who has shown for 4 years that he can contribute to the league. Isnt that backwards?

    The league is much less interesting when teams build by signing mediocre foreigners, rather than paying an extra 50K to keep a 24 year old US player from going to Scandanavia. DC wouldnt pay up for Bobby Boswell, but was happy to pay double for the frickin Martinez brothers, who were terrible.

    Yes, soccer is at a stage in the country right now where a lot of professionals are going to get paid $15K-$34K a year while they demonstrate whether or not they have play. Many of these guys will never make it and will get cut, or will finish their contract and decide they have a better chance to play for a USL team. However some of these guys will develop into MLS starters. Those guys shouldnt be held hostage by a team that doesnt want to pay them, but also wants compensation to give them up.

    Of all of the issues being discussed, this is the one that seems the most ridiculous. I am fine with the cap. I am fine with the cap not going up very quickly. I am fine with contracts that are not guaranteed.

    But lets have a league that rewards guys for succeeding and doesnt force every decent player to go to the Danish second division in order to get paid.


  • bgnewf

    Frankly I don’t buy the “poor finances” story of MLS nearly as much as many others do.

    Soccer United Marketing is a cash cow, and the league has a, relatively speaking, decent handle on costs. On top of that there is all the expansion dollars coming in this year and next (Upwards of $100 million +). Yes there are some weaker sisters (KC, Dallas, Columbus, etc.), but the league has added two (soon to be three with Philadelphia) strong franchises in Seattle and Toronto that undoubtedly make money.

    It might surprise some of you to learn that Soccer United Marketing is responsible for selling the US English and Spanish broadcasting rights for the World Cup, which for example I am sure makes a nice little chunk of change for the league…

    If this league was in the poor shape the owners claim it to be in then I do not think that there would be clubs building new expensive stadia (RSL, Red Bull, KC) and new cities (Vancouver, Portland, and maybe Montreal) lining up to join the party.

    I understand the cost control angle but I think the ownership is being far too unreasonable on issues like free agency, DP allocations, player movement and of course players on the bottom end of the scale making next to nothing in salary.

    Let’s hope saner heads prevail on both sides.


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