Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Strike Rumblings in the MLS

Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney is reporting that rumblings of a possible strike are coming out of the MLS/Player's Union Collective Bargaining Agreement talks. Writes Mahoney:
I'm starting to hear the S-word in talking to people about negotiations regarding a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between Major League Soccer and its players, and that word has nothing to do with salaries, as in minimums or maximums or caps or anything else.

The S-word is "strike," which could result if no agreement is reached by Jan. 31, when the current CBA expires. Discussions began early this year and haven't gone anywhere, from what I've heard, and the dynamics may have slid backward two weeks ago when MLS Commissioner Don Garber decried the involvement of FIFPro, an international players agency, which had petitioned FIFA on behalf of the MLS Players' Union regarding certain strictures utilized by the league in its contracts.

FIFA promptly issued a statement to the effect that it had no intention of meddling in a domestic labor-management negotiation. FIFPro and the MLSPU contend that by not guaranteeing contracts for their full duration and not permitting players unrestricted movement within MLS when their player contracts expire the league violates FIFA statues regarding transfers and movement between clubs.

For all its power and influence, FIFA is loathe to be dragged into any court in any land, and it seldom intervenes except in specific cases. Its transfer windows only apply to contracted players moving between associations in different countries, and thus, say, a short-term loan between two English clubs in October or an MLS trade in May that doesn't jibe with those windows doesn't break any of its rules. While option years may be more common in MLS than in other leagues, they are neither unknown nor "illegal."
The issue of contract guarantees was one that I was positive was going to come up. I didn't think that the Player's Union was going to get fully guaranteed contracts, but would get some sort of guarantee change. As Mahoney points out, usually only the first year of a contract is guaranteed and the second and remaining years only guaranteed if the player is on the club's roster on July 31 (the close of the MLS transfer/trade window).

But the Player's Union dragging FIFPro and FIFA in the discussion, which on the surface sounds like a good idea, may not have been the best tactical move. In the end, the Player's Union might win this battle but lose the overall war.

What is interesting to me, as Mahoney writes it, is that issues such as salary cap and minimum salaries don't appear to be on the table. That means one of two things:

1. The salary cap issue has been addressed and all sides are happy with what the new cap will be, i.e. that it is liveable for the owners but comes with minimum salaries that are acceptable to Player's Union; or

2. The negotiations have gotten bogged down on the guarantee issue and the sides haven't even talked financials.

If the situation is the former, all the better and I think the Player's Union should push for two guaranteed years and be happy. If the situation is the latter, the battle over guarantees are going to kill the discussion and there will be no talk of significant changes in salary caps.

The issue of the rights of players should be simple to resolve and the fact that MLS and the owners don't see this to me is shocking. As it stands now, if an MLS player is out of contract, meaning his current contract is over there are four options with the following consequences:

1. He can resign with his current club. Player and club are both happy--great.

2. He can retire from club soccer, in which case the club has no rights to him, unless he pulls a Brett Farve.--see caveat

3. He can try to transfer to another league--usually Europe but not always. See caveat.

4. He can try to go to another MLS club. See caveat.

CAVEAT--even when and MLS player is out of contract, meaning his contract with MLS (who holds all player contracts under the single entity structure), his former club retains his MLS rights. So in case 2 above, if the player retires but pulls a Brett Farve, then his rights are retained by the last club he played for. Ditto for case three and case four. There are exceptions, such as the case of Brian McBride which is a little different.

But this fix is so simple. An out of contract player is out of contract. He should be free to contract with any club he wants, in the MLS or other leagues. But I can see a modicum of protection for the MLS to MLS free transfer--a right to match or first refusal.

If say Houston have the rights to Rico Clark and Clark wants to go play for Seattle and he is out of contract. Seattle can make the best offer they can and Houston has to either match the offer or lose out. If Seattle really want Clark then they will make an offer that Houston can't or won't match. Seattle have to be judicious since those terms would become binding on the club and unless they make Clark a designated player, they have to pay him with the salary cap in mind. If Houston really want him, they have to match the offer again, with the salary cap in mind.

But a player should be free to sign with whoever is willing to give him a deal he likes and wants. Assuming the player sees out his contract, there should be no roadblocks to allowing him to ply his trade where he wants.

Back to the topic, I don't see a strike happening. MLS is coming off a great season (New York Red Bulls aside). While attendances (outside of Seattle) held steady or slightly declined, much of that can be attributed to the financial climate. The quality of the game is getting better and MLS is taking steps to becoming a proper league in terms of helping the game develop.

There is so much to lose and really nothing to gain by the Player's Union striking. A strike could set the league back 10 years if not kill it altogether. The owners know that the trend in the league is toward moderate profitability and the best way to get profitable is to put a quality product on the field. In a year when the World Cup is coming (complete with a massive game between the U.S. and England for the first time in 60 years), both sides have to know that a strike or a lockout is not a good thing for American soccer.

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