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Landon Donovan’s Future and the Heart of Labor’s Discontent

Soccer: World Cup Qualifier-Mexico at USA

Landon Donovan has impressed David Moyes and the Everton FC brass enough to justify a purchase, though the Toffees’ gaffer is resigned to losing the American star when the player’s loan expires this month.

Once the Galaxy star returns stateside, the precarious labor situation could put Donovan’s Liverpool future on hold indefinitely, regardless of whether Everton is willing to meet Major League Soccer’s demands.

When Donovan comes back, he is unlikely to be sold back to Everton before the beginning of the next Premier League season. There is, after all, a reason MLS wanted their second most marketable player back to train before the start of the season. However, with their apparent intent to continue using Donovan as a marketing tool – at least for the start of the 2010 season – the timing of a future move becomes precarious in light of labor uncertainties.

In my opinion, the odds of MLS and the MLSPU making it until August or September without a collective bargaining agreement or work stoppage is pretty low. If the players were willing to let the terms of the old bargaining agreement dictate their employment for an entire season, we would probably have some sort of a deal in place. Also, player leverage because incredibly high if they can use the potential World Cup-boon as well as the months before the start of football to their advantage.

If a work stoppage were to happen over the summer, would Donovan be able to complete a move to Everton (a move that is starting to look move inevitable)? Better still, how would the mechanics of such a sale work?

While a second loan deal seems like something the two sides could come together to allow, the options surrounding a permanent sale are muddied by labor uncertainty.

Landon Donovan is not only under contract to Major League Soccer, but the league holds his registration – a very important detail when it comes to soccer players. While a strike would typically mean a worker could be employed elsewhere while no agreement was in place, that does not mean Donovan’s registration would be released by Major League Soccer.

Without this release from MLS, Everton would not be able to complete a Donovan acquisition, even if the attacker and club wanted to complete a deal. Just because the CBA governing Donovan’s contract loses relevance when a work stoppage is enacted, MLS is not obligated to release the player’s registration.

Whether FIFA would step-in and allow the move: that’s an open question. This idea of “strike” or “lock-out” is pretty new to international soccer. There is not a lot of precedent for such transactions.

And this registration issue is not unique to Landon Donovan. We have no idea whether the governing bodies will respect MLS’s registrations in the face of a player’s attempt to move to another league.

Even if Major League Soccer wanted to complete a deal – perhaps use some of the rumored-to-be £7 million offer (about $10.5 million U.S.) to augment loses from a strike – would the Union acquiesce and allow a sale? Even if it is in the best interest of Donovan, it would not be in the best interest of the remaining players to line the owners’ pockets at a time when the players are walking a picket line.

The easy solution, should there be a work stoppage, would have Donovan go to Everton for a second loan stint. Whether that would be amenable to the Toffees is uncertain. They may have other buying opportunities in the summer, and without the option to buy their preferred player, they may opt for the security of acquiring a second choice permanently rather than wait-out the turmoil in MLS.

And all this assumes Major League Soccer would even consider letting Donovan go. If a work stoppage happens and MLS needs to engage in a new marketing blitz to regain some of the league’s lost market share, it’s difficult to image a better fulcrum to that campaign than Landon Donovan.

It is reasonable to think that Donovan and Everton want to make the deal happen. In quotes, each have been respectful of MLS’s rights, but neither have refrained from exulting their mutual admiration. And Donovan, of course, spent much of last season’s second-half openly discussing a potential move back to Europe, alluding to a confluence of factors (performance, contract, personal life, point in career) that made this the right time.

However, Major League Soccer has its own set of motivations.

Donovan signed a new contract with the league this offseason, but few fail to remember that the league held the option on him for 2010 (and 2011). Given the option of fighting (the perceived) good fight or taking a pay raise and some security, Donovan made the logical choice, signed the deal, but again handed his future over to MLS, who had all the leverage in the negotiations: “You can sign this new offer, or we can keep you here until you’re almost 30 but just not pay you as much.”

But now Donovan is about to come face-to-face with the downside to that money. Whether he wants the deal to happen has become irrelevant. Major League Soccer now needs inducement to let him go, and while $10.5 million is more than a fair price objectively, objectivity is pointless here. Major League Soccer has to look out for itself. As such, they will exert their control over Donovan however suits them best – which is their right.

Though there are few other players who are in Donovan’s situation, the core issues that could inhibit a move to Everton – a move that could cement his career’s legacy – are the same. Major League Soccer has set-up an entity that seeks to keep stability through controlling labor. The players union sees rights granted to domestic athletes and foreign soccer players and wants a step toward equality.

Even when the acclaimed best player of a generation has a chance to embark on a small piece of U.S. soccer history, Major League Soccer will be able to exercise that control.

The need for control (or, conversely, the need for more freedom) is the heart of this struggle, and caught up in it is the future of the generation’s iconic player.

It’s March 1st.  There’s no collective bargaining agreement, and Landon Donovan is about to return to Los Angeles with questions surrounding his season and career.

Another angle on the current state of negotiations (and how it affects the upcoming season) is provided by my partner Jeff Kassouf at Set Piece Analysts (though you may know him from Equalizer Soccer):  What mindset can the blue-collar players be in as they prepare for the season, given the uncertainties surrounding an expired CBA?


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  1. Dominic Barlow

    March 7, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    An Everton fan here, first of all I have to thank the MLS and The Galaxy for letting Landon come to Everton, his quality and class is something Everton needed and if no deal is done he will be missed by everyone at the club.

    As for the contract issue in the MLS at the moment, if no deal can be reached, what obligations does Donovan have to keep to the MLS if he wanted to move to Everton perminantly? Would they take his wishes into account? Or would they force him to his obligations? Both parties are interested in a move to keep him at Goodison, but would the MLS allow this is Donovan wanted it?

  2. Charles

    March 2, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I like how all the pro-player arguements seem to center if players had more rights the league would be so much better.

    You still have one problem. Money…it isn’t there. People don’t go to games. People still would rather watch Landon play in England, than go to a MLS game.

    • Richard Farley

      March 2, 2010 at 10:56 am

      Good points, Charles, but I will say that trying to figure out how much money is and is not there is always difficult, the way professional sports are set-up.

      • Charles

        March 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

        Yeah, like my Mariners. “Losing” $1 million a year for 10 years in the 1980s, then selling for 10 times the value after the 10 years.

        Come to think of it, I should be pro-player after watching all that bad baseball. 😉

        • Richard Farley

          March 2, 2010 at 11:38 am

          It’s hard not to be pro-player watching Phil Bradley and Alvin Davis. But them again, I’ve always liked those two in particular.

          But this bring up another point that should be expanded upon: Lots of sports teams lose money. This is true. But you can not take the annual operating loses into consideration without looking at the increase in franchise values, as many of the short-term costs that are reflected in the balance sheets are incurred with the hopes that the expenditures will be recouped when/if a franchise is sold.

          • David

            March 2, 2010 at 2:40 pm

            Richard: Lots of sports teams lose money ON PAPER, just like all those Hollywood mega hits which don’t seem to turn a profit ever. The reality is that these guys are making money, which is why the franchise fees and valuations keep increasing.

            Contrary to popular belief, Rich Guy is not plunking down $30 million (or whatever the figure is now) in cash for an MLS franchise; they are providing some equity out of pocket and financing the rest of the purchase through debt. The lenders will require ample evidence of the other franchises’ historical cash flow, etc. to ensure that the team will make enough to service the debt.

            Besides, we know that the Owners are make tons of money through SUM, right? They just keep it outside the MLS entity so they can pretend they’re not making money and thus can’t pay the players etc.

  3. usa2010

    March 2, 2010 at 7:59 am

    What is wrong with players skipping MLS? If they are any good, they are going to wind up in Europe eventually, anyway.

    Which begs the question: how can you strike over the fact that you are being held to the contract that you willingly signed, knowing what it meant, and when you had options to go elsewhere?

    It’s like buying a house near an airport and then campaigning to shut down the airport because it is too noisy:

    Single entity isn’t going away and true free agency isn’t coming in any form that might threaten single entity. The salary cap will rise, some of the current rules about transfers and contracts will be changed in the player’s favor, but the kinds of radical changes that the Union wants will not happen. If the Union destroys MLS insisting on these changes, they deserve a swift kick in the @ss and no true fan should support such lunacy.

    MLS players should take the extra money and run. They will be getting much higher, and regular wage increases at a time when most of the rest of us haven’t seen a wage rise in years.

    • Richard Farley

      March 2, 2010 at 9:43 am

      how can you strike over the fact that you are being held to the contract that you willingly signed

      This is a bit of a oversimplification and misleading, isn’t it? Not to pick on this one statement, but part of the reason that dialog amongst the fans is poor-to-nonexistent – they you either are very pro-owner or very pro-player – is because of statements like this. Again, I don’t want to pick on this statement (I doubt usa2010 meant for it to be subject to this scrutiny), but

      a.) that’s not what the players are striking over, and
      b.) as the Donovan situation illustrates, there’s more that goes into signing a contract that “did you sign it? Live with it.”

      • Charles

        March 2, 2010 at 9:53 am

        Maybe because I slightly side with the owners, but I don’t think the pro-owners side is VERY pro-owner….but the pro-player side IS VERY pro-player.

        It is more of a realistic viewpoint from the pro-owners:

        One, the league is here because a handful of rich guys.
        Two, they have invested a lot of money in a very risky investment.
        This investment has failed before and read the comments on any soccer site, most prefer the competition ( European soccer )
        Three, for the amount of support they have recieved…very pathetic really…they are doing pretty well.

        I am sure there ARE some pro-union and anti-union types in there skewing things to seem extreme.

        • Richard Farley

          March 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

          It’s a good viewpoint, Charles, and bet other questions:

          * What does an extreme pro-owner position look like?

          * What does an extreme pro-player position look like?

      • David

        March 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

        The answer is, you can’t. However, the CBA is expiring. Under U.S. labor law, a strike or lockout would be legal as a consequence of failing to agree to terms on a new CBA.

    • David

      March 2, 2010 at 2:13 pm

      “if they are any good, they will end up Europe anyways”? Maybe you should ask Taylor Tweillman. Or Sacha Kljeistan. Had European offers, with big guaranteed contracts, wanted to go, but were kept on the MLS plantation.

      Yes, that’s what the contracts say. Yes, it’s legal for MLS to do it. We get that. You guys are arguing with yourselves on those points.

      The point is that young talented American players will continue to forgo MLS if they can due to MLS’s BS structure. This results in lower level of play in MLS and lack of development for American players who do not exhibit enough talent at at young enough age to start their careers overseas.

  4. David

    March 1, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    And fans wonder why young Americans are skipping MLS and heading to the entry level Scandinavian leagues and whatnot. I would advise any young American with talent and aspirations to avoid the MLS plantation and pursue a career within the established, international system of player contracts and transfers.

  5. Gazza

    March 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    If the players strike post World Cup plan on not having soccer until mid 2011. The owners are just going to wait them out. They are not caving on Free Agency ….. to them it would be worse that folding the league. They will raise the cap to $5m per team before giving up their Single Entity.

  6. Elliott

    March 1, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    If the players are cunning and malevolent, then they will wait until the season starts, Ownership sells season tickets, and strike post-World Cup. I hope not, but it’s the only option aside from operating under the old CBA for a season

  7. Jammer

    March 1, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    “would the Union acquiesce and allow a sale?”
    Explain why the union has a veto?

    • Richard Farley

      March 1, 2010 at 8:26 pm

      My understanding: Without a collective bargaining agreement in place, MLS would have no sanction to unilaterally sell anybody. There is no agreement in place by which they can do that. They can no more sell Donovan than they can order him to show up for a match – there is no labor agreement in place by which to do so.

      Currently, the sides are abiding by the previous agreement. If there’s a work stoppage, that ends.

      Veto wouldn’t be the right word. MLS would just need an agreement with the player/union before they could sell.

      • Charles

        March 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

        You sure about that ? He IS under contract, right ?

        • Richard Farley

          March 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

          So first, a player can’t be solved without his acquiesce. It is not like a trade in MLS, NFL, NHL, NBA, etc. So yes, I’m reasonably sure.

          Second, Donovan’s contract is subject to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Just as we saw an NHL CBA effect an across-the-board rate cut to the pre-existing contracts, the MLS CBA could bring new deals under the subject of new terms. Regardless, without a CBA to govern the terms of whether a player can be transferred, then the “IS” of him being under contract …

          Well, it doesn’t make him property.

  8. Tom

    March 1, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    The labor situation is worrying, I hope they work it out. Could the leage sign Donovan, and then use the money to buy back 2 or 3 players of interest from other clubs? Such as Adu, or other Americans or CONCACAF players that are getting playing time in Europe? It is a real problem that Donovan is ready to go, but he means so much to the league.

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