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