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Labor Strife

MLS Players Remain United As CBA Negotiations Stall

Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union remain far apart on several key issues in their ongoing labor negotiations—so far apart, in fact, that the season's start could be in jeopardy.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
January 22, 2015
5:22 PM

That’s how long it is until the start of Major League Soccer’s 20th season, with the Los Angeles Galaxy scheduled to host the Chicago Fire on March 6.

But if the league and its players don’t reach an accord on a new collective bargaining agreement, the start of the season is in jeopardy. The current CBA expires at the end of this month and without a new one in place, it is doubtful the season begins as planned.

“I can’t imagine a situation where we would start the season without a CBA,” MLS players association head Bob Foose told American Soccer Now this morning.

Until the current CBA expires next week, there will be no work-stoppage as there can be neither a lockout nor a strike under its terms. However MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said it’s too early to worry the season won’t start on time.

“It is premature at this stage of the discussions to speculate about the possibility of a work stoppage,” Abbott said in a statement released by MLS. “Although there are a number of issues which still need to be resolved, that is true of every CBA negotiation, and we are committed to continued negotiations."

Neither side is offering up much in the way of details so tea leaves are hard to read. But if the latest negotiations are a sign, things aren’t going well. Garber and several other league officials met with Foose this week at the office of the union’s general counsel in Washington, D.C. Two days of sessions were scheduled but the group dispersed after only one because of a lack of progress.

“We remain very far apart on several key issues,” Foose said. “And while I remain confident, it’s difficult to see a path to resolution right now.”

Foose said no new date has been set for the next round of negotiations. Foose also said that no third-party mediators had been discussed as of yet, something that helped bring a resolution to the last CBA negotiations in 2010.

The two biggest issues, as they have been in previous CBA talks, remain compensation and free agency.

"Free agency is certainly an enormously important issue,” Foose said. “But player compensation is also extremely important and the mass of inequality in pay. It’s as much how the money is spent as it is how much is spent.”

Last year’s salary cap was $3.1 million. But the league’s designated players—players for whom most of their salary is exempt from the cap—often exceed that all by themselves. For instance, per the MLS Players Union union, the Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey earned $6.69 million last year and Michael Bradley of Toronto FC pulled down $6.5 million.

Meanwhile, Dempsey’s teammate Andy Rose, a part-time starter in his third year as a pro on one of the top teams in the league, made $48,825—the same salary earned by Toronto’s Mark Bloom, who started 26 games at right back last year. (Bloom has signed a new deal this offseason and will presumably be better compensated going forward.)

Dempsey makes $128,653 per week. Rose earns $938 every seven days.

That gap is something the players are seeking to close.

“From our perspective, if we’re going to take the league forward and grow it to where we want it to go, we can’t simply just grow salaries at the top of the roster,” Foose said. “It’s not effective, not a path to improving the quality of play in league. Salaries have to be addressed at all points, entry level, mid-level, and the top.”

Despite his lofty salary, Bradley has taken an active role in the union and is advocating for increased salaries at the lower end. This week he told ESPN that free agency—which MLS players who are out of contract don’t have—was an issue worth striking for.

“Should we get to a point before the season where things and negotiations aren't where they should be, we are ready to strike, and we are united as a group to make real progress in terms of the way players get treated in this league," he said. “We're in no way being greedy. We want what's best for the league, we want to help this league grow and continue to push forward in every possible way. But it is time for some changes in the way that things are done and I think that in the end we'll find a good way to get all that done."

Bradley’s comments echo those made by World Cup teammate Omar Gonzalez. The Los Angeles Galaxy defender, another designated player, earned $1.25 million last year—and told ESPN that the players “are prepared to go on strike.”

While such verbal sabre rattling is part of the tete-a-tete of contract negotiations, Foose said they are also indicative of the league’s unity, especially because the comments are coming from higher-paid established stars who are advocating for more money and rights for lower-paid players.

“There’s no doubt about it, all our players are very locked in. They’re very well informed and very committed to change. They have made it crystal clear to the league that they can’t continue to play in the current system,” Foose said. “The guys at top end of the pay scale understand what’s important to the guys at bottom and the other way around, too. We have a very good cross section (of players) on our leadership committee, including several guys who were rookies last year.”

Bradley is in his second season in MLS after eight-and-a-half years in Europe, but he has already become one of the leaders within the players union. He fills a void left by the retirement of league icon Landon Donovan and to a lesser degree former Chicago stalwart Logan Pause, both of whom were active members of the union’s executive committee.

“Michael is a tremendous leader and very passionate,” said Foose. “It’s always difficult to lose guys like Landon and Logan, who have been integral to what we’ve done and they’re both fantastic guys. But Michael, and a lot of guys like him, have stepped in to that role.”

Last week in Philadelphia at a ceremony announcing that the league’s MVP trophy would be named in his honor, Donovan told reporters he was “very, very proud” of his work in helping forge the first two CBAs, including the one that expires next week.

“Landon was very central to us as a union and was part of our executive board for 10 years,” Foose said. “He spent as much time as any player in the history of this league on the union, and that speaks volumes to his character. It certainly was not something he needed to be doing and for a while he was one of few who didn’t need (what the union advocated for most of its members).

"I can’t say enough positive things about Landon and what he meant to us.”

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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