23 February ~ The 2010 Major League Soccer season is due to kick off in just over a month, but don't get too excited. A good old-fashioned labour dispute over player contracts could mean that the season is either delayed or cancelled altogether if the players go on strike. Negotiations between the league and the players' union have already been extended beyond the original January 31 deadline (when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the union expired) until Thursday of this week. But there seems little prospect of an immediate deal after both sides went public with their grievances at the weekend.

It's a complex dispute but here are some of the basic sticking points. Unlike elsewhere in the world most player contracts are not guaranteed. This means that a club can cut a player mid-season, mid-contract and pay him no more wages – a very popular move by struggling teams when the summer transfer window opens. Or they can offer him a "take-it-or-leave-it" pay cut. Ironically, a lot of the players signed during that summer transfer window come from abroad and have contracts negotiated for them which are guaranteed. Neither they nor their agents would accept anything less.

This is linked to another huge issue in the talks – free agency. If a player is cut the team still retains the player's rights. So he can not play for another MLS team until the club that has just cut him, and which is no longer paying him, agrees to some kind of a deal. That is, they'll only let him play for another MLS team if they get something in exchange (a future draft pick, say). To post-Bosman Europeans this practice seems almost medieval. But when MLS was formed in 1996 the league hired some very expensive lawyers to have this legally set in stone and they're not willing to let it go (it could subject them to a legal challenge on their status as a "single entity" business). The union believes the league, which negotiates all player contracts, is fixated on central control and that this is suppressing pay levels at the lower end, and hampering player development. Countless young US prospects prefer the relative security and better wages of the Scandinavian leagues.

Those salaries of the league's young prospects, grandly labelled "developmental players" by MLS, are another problem for the union. When David Beckham signed for the league in 2007, his $6.5 million (£4.2m) base salary alone was almost five times as much as the combined wages of all 93 developmental players, who receive a pittance and must live like students or with host families. But these are rarely 16-year-old kids who need mentoring. They're college graduates in their early 20s and many of them choose to earn more abroad, find better deals with second- or third-tier US teams in what are effectively semi-pro leagues, or leave the game altogether and get a proper job. Their places are taken by more, but less talented, cheap labour.

MLS is refusing to budge on the free agency issue and says it will "never" risk the financial stability that has allowed the league to survive and expand "simply to avert a work stoppage", in the words of president Mark Abbott. And right now it can point not just to historically failed leagues like the North American Soccer League as progenitors of unhealthy excess, but to Portsmouth and numerous other English clubs as well. But the MLS players' union executive director Bob Foose told the Washington Post that the dispute is not about demanding excessive wages and that the "modest changes" being proposed by the union are "about basic fairness for our members and our ability to make improvements to a player system that is one-sided and unfair".

The bottom line seems to be that if the union insists on free agency, there will be a strike. If it chooses to save that fight for another day, when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated a few years down the line, the two sides should find enough common ground to eke out a deal. This would doubtless see both sides publicly proclaiming victory while privately nursing hurt. A strike would be massively damaging for what is still, after all, a nascent league attempting to tell the world that the US is serious about soccer. But being a global player doesn't just mean signing David Beckham and smothering him with coverage and cash. Sooner or later it will mean treating players less like bargaining chips and more like human beings. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (8)
Comment by imp 2010-02-23 13:45:27

Addendum: the league announced late Monday they won't lock the players out if there's no deal, but will continue to work under the conditions of the expired CBA. So any work stoppage would be on the players' initiative.

Comment by Mike_S 2010-02-23 13:46:41

Countless players have chosen Scandinavia?

Countless. Talk about exaggeration. Ramiro Corrales returns to MLS having not improved enough to stay in Europe. Same with Danny Califf. Adin Brown (who no one in MLS is dying to sign) is out of work. Troy Perkins is back because his wife couldn't find a job.

It seems that just about the time these guys lose their protected tax status, they return to MLS because the rates they're getting paid are quickly devoured by the higher tax rates of these countries. Let's face it, they make no more money in Scandinavia and as soon as that tax status is removed, they high tail it home. I guess they just don't pay them enough to live comfortably over there. The seem to be the same type of "cheap labor".

You have a few like Charlie Davies (get well CD) and Marcus Tracy who have the talent to bypass MLS for Scandinavian teams, but it's hardly "countless" and more like "less than a dozen". And while I'm happy for Chris Rolfe and his furthering of his career, it'd be hard to claim that his being played out of position by Denis Hamlett for 2 years didn't also factor into that decision.

In a perfect world, every MLS stadium would be sold out every weekend and ESPN/FSC and at least 2 major networks would have an MLS game on every weekend CCL/SL/USOC games and there would be the revenue to justify paying these guys a lot more on the low end and have reserve teams that could make some players forgo college ala Baseball, but it's not a perfect world. It's the US and for all the gains made over the last 30 years since Italia 90, soccer is still a niche sport.

Comment by imp 2010-02-23 15:02:22

@MIke S: If you must, to quantify "countless", last year there were 20 US players with Nordic European teams (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark), according to the peerless Yanks Abroad website. Of course the moves don't all work out for the players, for a variety of reasons, but that's the point - these are at best second-tier European leagues, a long way from home, but still they're a better option than MLS for many young players. That's not to mention the many that opt for PDL or USL teams because pay and conditions are better at semi-pro level.

Don't see the point of your final paragraph. No one's talking about a perfect world, the issue here is improving players' rights, which in turn should improve the quality of the league and shore up one of its founding principles - to be a development ground for young US talent. If MLS wants to nurture and retain a fair portion of that talent, it should at the very least offer the same contractual conditions it gives to incoming foreign players.

Comment by tschumac 2010-02-23 15:23:48

Another advantage of players joining PDL or USL teams is that they are able to play indoor during the off season, which MLS players are not allowed to do, and this effectively raises their pay to above what many MLS players are making. It seems that if the league can afford fading Euro imports like Angel or Beckham, they can afford to play the rest of their squads as well. The gamble on bringing in highly paid stars has not done so much to develop the sport in the US as they would have wished, and it certainly has not helped their teammates.

Comment by Mike_S 2010-02-23 16:04:27

IMP - if they were such a better option, far more Americans with the requisite talent would be there than they 20 who are.

Further, you're going to have to show your work for the "many" players who are bypassing MLS for USL contacts that come anywhere near the average MLS salary. Are USL contacts guaranteed? I don't know. And most of the PDL players aren't paid, so how is anyone opting for the PDL for better pay? They're not.

At best you have a handful of players that choose the USL because they think they're better than the MLS contract options they have and a handful of players that leave MLS for a variety of reasons. Gonzalo Segares didn't just leave for the money, this was basically his last chance to try his hand in Europe. Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark weren't in any danger of working for peanuts and being summarily cut for some aging foreign star.

Trust me, I support the players being able to negotiate with any club in MLS once their contract expires and their former club having no rights to them if they leave for a season and come back. But as of now, unless I'm wrong, unless specifically stated in their contract - MLS contracts become guaranteed on July 1 of each season, so if you make it that far, you have a job until the end of the season. So there is some limited amount of guarantee.

As for improving the quality of the league with contract guarantees, guaranteeing players in what I consider the developmental range of the league (20K-35K) for 1 or 2 or 3 seasons isn't going to make those players suddenly more talented. If we're really serious about that, cut those players loose and pick up professionals from countries like Argentina and other place who go weeks to months without being paid.

The point of my final paragraph is something that some fans and seemingly a lot of the players fail to grasp that for the most part, they play in less than full stadiums with TV viewership that rivals infomercials. It's pretty ballsy to tell the owners, some of whom have spent hundreds of million of dollars keeping the league alive and until recently, paying networks to broadcast their games, that you as a player are being treated like a slave and are playing for poverty wages and you're going to strike if you don't get a guaranteed job for the next 3 years and a nice little raise to boot.

NFL players don't have guaranteed contracts and the vast majority of American workers don't have "guaranteed" contracts unless you are an autoworker or one of a few other trades. So given the conditions of the US employment market right now, these cries of unfair treatment will ring a little hollow if they expect even a majority of soccer fans, let alone the general population to cry out to the owners to give them what they want because they can't live without their MLS.

Comment by imp 2010-02-23 20:32:01

@Mike S: Because NFL contracts are not guaranteed, MLS contracts shouldn't be either? Even disregarding that spurious argument, the salary variations are too monstrous to make the comparison valid. Never mind that contracts in other major league sports, and in football globally, are guaranteed.

And why do you think the "vast majority" of American workers don't have guaranteed contracts? Could it be because most of them aren't in a union? That's the benefit of being organised – you get to sit down and negotiate, with the threat of collective action if your demands aren't accommodated.

First you claim the number of US players in Scandinavia must be less than a dozen, then in the face of evidence to the contrary, you say that 20 players isn't many. It's a matter of interpretation, of course - I think that's a significant number, especially considering that several of them are fringe national team candidates, or better in the case of Chris Rolfe. It's not "such a better option", it's not a great one at all, but mostly still an improvement in terms of contract and salary over MLS.

As for the USL/PDL players, it's true they're not rich, but the overall options by making that choice (getting playing time/doing coaching/camps/winter soccer/other jobs etc.) are often preferable to the risibly compensated developmental player option in MLS (it doesn't take much - $15-20k in 2009). Look at the rosters of these teams and see how many former MLS players or draft picks there are. The developmental player option was originally so that teams could take on young players during summer to bolster training sessions when senior players were absent on international duty or there were a high number of injuries. It was never intended as an annual salary for a full-time professional, but it's been exploited by teams that way for cheap labour.

US players and fans are aware of how full their stadiums are, and how many people watch them on TV, so your patronising putdown is way off the mark - I've never met a single fan or player deluded on this issue. At the risk of repeating myself a second time, the column and the issue aren't about the players going out to bankrupt the league with outrageous wage demands, it's about them fighting for fair employment conditions. Thank you in advance for understanding this point.

Comment by isi_777 2010-02-24 11:17:31

Great article by the way...

Comment by Insert witty username 2010-02-26 13:30:06

To the eye of this outsider, MLS's almost Stalinist centralization seems somehow intuitively un-American.

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