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Leagues: MLS

MLS players should take free agency deal that’s on the table


It may not feel like it, but the players have already “won” in the ongoing labor negotiations, which remain stalled (as of Wednesday mid-day at least; things are moving fast) and now threaten to delay the start of Major League Soccer’s 20th season.

They may not love the deal they eventually get. It almost certainly won’t be the arrangement they truly covet. But free agency was always the sticking point in the ongoing labor discord, so any progress toward it represents a hard-earned “win.”

If there is a proposal that moves the players in that direction (and there seems to be), they should vote “yay,” run up the “victory” flag and get on with it. In the long run, it moves the ball down the field – and that should always have been their true target.

Things “got real,” as they say, on Tuesday. Negotiations went into the night (or possible even into the wee smalls of Wednesday morning). The strike rhetoric rose and a few details started slipping out into the public. (Although most of the smarter media takes recognized that tactical leaking of information tells only a small portion of what is really happening behind closed doors).

The upshot from it all: It appears that some form of limited free agency is on the table. How much? How many years of service would be required to qualify? Is there a cap on contract increases for qualifiers? How long is the new collective bargaining agreement? How much of a bump in minimum player pay? Well, that’s where the leaks, suppositions and conclusions get tricky; in truth, only those in the room this week in Washington, D.C., know the actual math on this one.

Either way, there will be no unlimited free agency in Major League Soccer. That was always the owners’ hard line, especially because of its potential effect on the league’s bedrock single-entity structure.

For some of the reasons we’ve outlined before, the owners always had leverage in negotiations. So – again, players or fans who sided passionately with the athletes don’t want to hear this – any progress toward free agency should have been the players’ long-term goal. And it probably was all along.

The trick for the players was always in talking a big game about “free agency now!” They needed to walk this thing to the brink of a strike, create the impression that solidarity was iron-clad and that the threat of a few idle weekends and the embarrassment of empty stadiums was genuine.

But even while doing that, the players were showing a weak hand, or they were acting in the spirit of compromise, whichever way you chose to see it. D.C. United and Montreal went on with things in CONCACAF Champions League. Chicago has gotten on that airplane bound for LAX and the league’s first match of this milepost 20th campaign. Everyone else is locked into final preparations for matches this weekend.

It never “felt” like a strike was imminent. And since “strike” was the only leverage players ever held, it always felt more like soft tissue than actual muscle.

Player representatives have generally been good about not divulging details, not only for what MLS ownership is offering, but they have been sparse on precise details for what they wanted (beyond the comprehensive “free agency,” that is). That works to the players’ advantage here.

Yes, some of the leaked proposals toward free agency were hardly free agency at all. Some early reports Tuesday said that players over age 32 with 10 years at the same club would be eligible. Congratulations, Brad Davis! You appear to be the lone qualifier under such a non-proposal proposal. (Would we then call it the Davis Rule, a la Bosman?)

But what if that information was leaked strategically by players, who knew that something better was already on the table? From there, whatever “concessions” the players might earn could more easily be portrayed as “movement” and therefore a “win.” That means saving face. And it means Friday’s first kick (Chicago at the LA Galaxy in a nationally televised contest) would go on as planned.

If players get somewhere near 28 years with six years of service, even with some cap on a subsequent raise, that’s a big win. And congratulations to them.

I have maintained throughout all this that Major League Soccer’s 20th season would launch as scheduled. My hedge was that some limited strike might ensue, but that it would be corralled quickly. Mostly that was based on the premise that owners had the bulk of leverage, and that hasn’t changed. The player reps certainly want what’s best for themselves and for their league brethren, but they are generally smart guys. They always knew the score where “leverage” was concerned.

Here are other reasons the owners continue to hold the edge in leverage:

– I don’t think players ever seriously committed to striking. I think they were always committed to the possibility of a strike. Or maybe even to a lesser state of engagement; perhaps it is more accurate to say “they were committed to the possibility of considering a strike.”

– MLS ownership is in a better position to withstand a strike or work stoppage, even a long one. Professional soccer in this country has come so far and it still has a long way to go. Ownership, especially the very conservative Kraft and Hunt families, who are apparently the hardliners of management side, holds a central understanding of this. A strike would leave a bruise on MLS, for sure. But truth be told, turbulence has always marked the years and decades of building soccer in this country. A strike would represent a tremor, not be the major earthquake some fans and media have proposed. Believe it, pro soccer would rebound.

– Fans and media have generally sided with the players. Which is fine. Except that it never mattered. Owners have the ability to look at this labor problem as just that, as “a problem to solve.” They have others, and plenty of them. Major League Soccer needs to keep increasing revenue, at the gate, in sponsorship and certainly on TV deals. And the league needs to keep establishing a larger national footprint. So fan sentiment never really came into play. It may sound smug. Check that, it is smug. But that’s the way it is.

– You have to wonder how invested foreign players really are in a strike. When we think about free agency, the picture that develops in most minds is the American player who wants to live and work where he wants within his homeland. By contrast, foreign players typically have the option of going home once their MLS contracts expire. Well, consider that roughly a third of Major League Soccer’s player comes from somewhere else. There is reason to question just how strong the solidarity really is within all corners of MLS locker rooms.

Owners were always playing the long game here. Listen to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who was on Wednesday’s Soccer Morning show and podcast:

“The owners are not going to sign a deal they think is bad for them just so they can have games this weekend. Their perspective is long-term.”

The players have a harder time thinking “long term” because those are two words that don’t really apply to an athletes’ career. In a way, they are really negotiating for the next negotiations, whether those are 5, 8 or 10 years away. That’s where the owners have been all along.

No, the players will not reap true free agency this time around. But if they sow it, if they move toward it in any small but meaningful way, they’ve done their job – and everybody can play soccer this weekend.

Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk


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  1. Aram

    March 4, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    You raise great points and your argument is convincing, but my takeaway is that it’s all rather depressing as once again owners will triumph over labor. Just look at how NBA players, who have far more power than MLS players, got beaten over the head the last time.

    • Ammon

      March 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm

      Why are owners always the bad guys? Of course they are doing what is in the best interest for them, what person doesn’t? At the end of the day we would not have a league if these owners did not spend their hard earned money over the years. Free Agency will come in time and it takes baby steps to get there. No American sport has ever received FA overnight.

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