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.