MLS Labor Negotiations In Stoppage Time?

I missed this yesterday, but apparently the Major League Soccer Players Union broke the mutual silence on the status of ongoing collective bargaining agreement talks Friday, which prompted this response from management.

If it’s true that the owners have offered to increase player spending by some $12M a year (less than $1M per team, but still not an insignificant amount), that’s a positive, right? Players and fans alike have been clamoring for MLS to loosen the pursestrings. The time appears right for that. It’s not the all-out spending blitz that some feel it would take to make MLS a much more bigtime league, but it’s a start.

The sticking point appears to be free agency within the league – or, at a bare minimum, a resolution to the question of what happens when a player’s MLS team releases him. As it stands now, it’s a release without true freedom – the releasing team retains the player’s MLS rights, and a team that signs him has to compensate the releasing team, or work a trade. That makes no logical sense. MLS President Mark Abbott explains:

“What is important to understand is that our league is in a different situation than the other professional sports leagues in North America. When it comes to players, we function in an international market and other leagues are not subject to our salary budget and do have greater resources. It is that dynamic that makes us different from other sports leagues in the U.S., and that’s why we don’t believe free agency works for us. The players have an opposite view, but our view is that it’s not something that is good for the continued growth and development of the league. Our system was designed to counteract the international market.”

You had me up until “and that’s why we don’t believe free agency works for us,” Mark. I don’t get it. How does keeping a player shackled to a team that no longer wants him counteract the international market? Of course, any player has, in theory, the option to go to another team in another league (not all are good enough to go to one of the upper-echelon leagues, and not all are willing to pull a Steve Ralston and drop down a league). But in actual practice, this seems to be just silly. If you don’t want a player, why shouldn’t he be free to seek employment elsewhere (like any other worker in any other field in America)? And who are the guys you’re going to be releasing anyway? The Dan Gargans of the world? So what? Is that worth a work stoppage?

There’s no question MLS’ player contracts are draconian. But unless you’re the MLBPA, you’re up against it when the owners want to dig in their heels. It might be that the best MLS players can hope for is salary gains (and whatever else has been offered) this go-around and to try again for free agency (of some sort) next time. A strike (which would be the first since 1979 in American soccer) might hurt the players more than the owners. I’m not sure either side wants to go to the nuclear option, but the clock is ticking, with the new deadline this Thursday. If the players are hacked off enough to go to the press to try to make their case, it sounds like they might be willing to take a walk next willing.

Better now than in five weeks, when the season is set to start. But it would be even better if it doesn’t happen at all.

6 thoughts on “MLS Labor Negotiations In Stoppage Time?”

  1. What worries me is the fact that Columbus has a CONCACAF Champions League Game on March 6th and a follow up game in Toluca on St Pattys Day… what happens if push comes to shove here in a couple days and they do call it a strike??

  2. My first instinct is that the players could walk out next weekend just to show that they’re pissed, but they wouldn’t really accomplish anything except sending a message (it’s one thing to walk out in training camp – quite another to walk out in April or June).

    I would imagine that if they couldn’t get the CCL games postponed, they’d have to forfeit. Stranger things have happened.

    But the threat of missing a CCL game or two isn’t a real hammer at this point in time. When the NBA players threatened not to play an All-Star Game back in the day, that was a real threat and management had something to lose. I’m not sure MLS sees yet another money-losing CCL tie as something to lament if it goes by the wayside.

  3. “Mark. I don’t get it. How does keeping a player shackled to a team that no longer wants him counteract the international market?”

    Abbott said there are other ways to handle that situation that are not free agency. See:
    http://www.soccerbyives.net/soccer_by_ives/2010/02/mls-responds-to-players-union-criticisms.html

    “There have been some discussions about what happens to a player whose team no longer wants him and how the right of first refusal works. We’ve made proposals on those areas too, to address some of those concerns.

    What we haven’t done is made a proposal on free agency,” Abbott said. “We can address some of these right of first refusal concerns without having free agency. Free agency is not something we think is good for the league.”

    To my mind, that would mean something simple: currently, MLS has to ‘make an offer’ to retain a player’s rights. Otherwise he’s considered to have been cut and can go try out somewhere else.

    But currently the abuse can come in because it doesn’t have to be a meaningful offer. That’s what you could fix.

    Any player for whom his new offer is less than x% of what he was making before is considered waived (unless he takes it). Then he goes into the waiver draft order, where someone can take him if they’re willing try to sign him.

    Simple enough, and not free agency. What Abbot is trying to say is that some proposal at least vaguely like this has been put out there and rejected.

  4. Obviously, that can be done. A ‘qualifying offer’ is in most free agency systems. If you make him the offer, he doesn’t take it, you retain his rights. If you don’t make him the offer, you get nothing.

    MLS and its teams want their cake and to eat it as well. It shouldn’t work that way.

    But whatever Abbott says STILL doesn’t address the question of how letting a player who is out of contract or is released go to another MLS team (of his choosing, and with that team’s interest) de-stabilizes MLS’ salary structure or has anything whatsoever to do with “counteracting” the international market.

    If the salary cap is “hard” (as opposed to the NBA’s, which is hardly a cap at all), that takes care of the salary escalation, doesn’t it?

  5. RE: those who say I’ve “missed the point” about players whose contracts have expired vs. those who have been released: That’s fair.

    If a player is released, he should be “released,” free and clear. That’s it. You hold no right to him whatsoever. If your contract isn’t guaranteed, and you’re released prior to its expiration, I don’t see how you can hold someone hostage.

    As for someone whose contract has expired, well, that’s a different kettle of fish. We don’t know what a team has done to try to keep said player, or if they even want to keep said player at all. It may very well be that said player had no intention of returning to that club. And, if he has fulfilled the terms of his contract and seen it through to its expiration, it seems to me that that should end the contractual arrangement between player and club.

    But I understand that it doesn’t always work that way.

    In the case of Hartman or van de Bergh…well, let’s take Hartman first. He played out his contract. Either he was okay with that, or the team was (it appears as though the team was). In that case, I think he should still be able to sign with anyone who will have him UNLESS Kansas City makes a (token) qualifying offer. Worst case scenario, you end up going back to Kansas City and playing under the terms of that qualifying offer. Or they opt not to match the terms offered you by whatever other team wants you.

    But all of this should be wrapped up by December 31, it seems to me. It’s only fair for a guy to have time to explore his options, be they in MLS or abroad.

    But I STILL want someone to explain to me how free agency within the league de-stabilizes the salary structure or hurts their “counteracting” of the international market (FIFA has already put limitations on the international market though transfer windows, which are stupid as all hell).

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