There's an elephant in the room for this current MLS offseason. It isn't Frank Lampard and his will-he-or-won't-he dance, nor is it Toronto FC doing Toronto FC things, it isn't even the handful of new Designated Players both young and old. What MLS has on its hands is a good, old fashioned labor dispute. You see, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), signed in 2010, expires on Jan. 31, and with that expiration comes with the end of a no-lockout clause, which means if the MLS Player Union (MLSPU) wants to strike on or after Feb. 1 or the owners want to stop paying the players, they can without breach of contract. So let's commence with another iteration of Infrequently Asked Questions.
Q. Okay so is this CBA thing is a pretty big deal?
A. Yeah, it's a huge deal, and not having a new CBA signed by the start of the season could result in a work stoppage.
Q. That seems like a pretty big deal. What is a CBA anyway?
A. CBA stands for Collective Bargaining Agreement which is a contract signed by the union and its employer, which in this case are the MLSPU and MLS. Its goal is to set working conditions and institute certain rules and procedures for player procurement, compensation, and the like.
Q. So why doesn't the league and the player's union already have a CBA?
A. Uh, they do. If you read that intro paragraph you'd see the current CBA, signed in 2010, expires on Jan. 31, 2015.
Q. What happens on Feb. 1, 2015?
A. The former CBA expires. I just said that.
Q. Does that mean that the two sides are currently negotiating for a new CBA?
A. Yes, as a matter of fact on Tuesday MLS officials and representatives from the MLSPU met in Washington DC for a two-day sit down.
Q. Awesome. Did they sign a new deal?
A. No. In fact the two-day meeting turned into a one-day meeting.
Q. It went that poorly?
A. Not necessarily, no. It has come out, to no surprise, that the Player's Union's two main points of contention are Free Agency and Player Compensation. During the meeting MLS gave its counter-proposals. A second day might have been deemed superfluous at the time while both sides consider what the other submitted.
Q. So then are they close to signing a deal? Needing only one day sounds like a good thing then.
A. After this meeting the two sides were, to put it simply, "far apart" on the key issues.
Q. Oh, that's not good. Is that why Michael Bradley came out and said what he did?
A. His words are being echoed across social media platforms by other players. It seems the Player's Union is unified in their desire to get Free Agency or strike.
Q. Are the players going to strike?
A. It's been threatened, yes, and tweets like the one from Taylor Twellman below give some credence to the threat. But in a smart move, both parties agreed that even without a signed CBA preseason and tournaments such as CONCACAF Champions League would proceed unimpeded.
After being a part of the #CBA talks last time, I get a real sense this group of players is ready/confident enough to strike 4 FreeAgency.— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) January 22, 2015
Q. Would a strike be bad for the league?
A. Oh undoubtedly. The growth MLS has made in the past few years is massive. Any strike risks setting back progress and alienating fans. A work stoppage would also be problematic for a majority of the members of the MLSPU, whose salaries are far lower than other professional athletes across the major American sports.
Q. Would FIFA intervene in the case of a strike?
A. Unlikely, as FIFA said they would not intervene if a strike occurred in 2010.
Q. So is Free Agency even possible in MLS?
A. According to MLS, the problem with Free Agency is that it runs opposite to the way MLS and its single-entity status was initially started, especially its perpetual "we won't allow teams to bid against each other". In order to obtain this demand of the MLSPU, a fundamental shift would have to occur in the way the league is run. Since it's MLS that pays the salaries of the majority of players on every team's squad, they're not willing to let a player's salary become inflated due to internal bidding wars. But that's not to say MLS couldn't adopt a non-standard form of Free Agency, potentially in blind bids for a player in the instance multiple teams are vying for his services. It's possible, yes, in some form or another.
Q. Wasn't Free Agency the major sticking point in the 2010 CBA negotiations as well?
A. It was. This is quite obviously a very important issue to the MLSPU, one which the league is adamant about not implementing. Back in 2010 MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott stated in regards of Free Agency, "That is something the league is not prepared to do. Clearly, no one is in favor of a work stoppage, but we spent years establishing the structure of the league to make it work and we did so against a background of repeated failures to launch professional soccer leagues in the United States." So this isn't new to the MLS and MLSPU CBA landscape.
Q. What are the potential benefits of Free Agency?
A. Free Agency would have the benefit of players being able to choose their own club, which is something rarely seen in MLS; it would lead to better compensation for the players; and it'd also usher MLS into an era of unheralded transparency, something Don Garber mentioned is a priority for 2015 following the Jermaine Jones debacle.
Q. Is this a negotiation tactic by the MLSPU?
A. It could be that MLSPU knows that Free Agency is a dead end but by sticking to their guns and espousing it at every opportunity, it can become their ultimate bargaining chip that they reluctantly relinquish at the last minute to get the rest of their demands met.
Q. Are the demands of the MLSPU for Free Agency and better player compensation mutually exclusive?
A. That isn't a clear yes or no answer. If the league implemented Free Agency in the next CBA, it wouldn't be a surprise to see player compensation go up. Without Free Agency the league would surely increase the cap and the minimum salary regardless.
Q. Will there be any other new rules implemented?
A. That's unknown at this time. The only bits of news we've heard from negotiations regarding demands were of Free Agency and player compensation. But it would certainly be nice to see something similar to the Bird Rule in the NBA.
Q. What's the Bird Rule?
A. Technically it's called "Bird free agent" but it allows a team to re-sign one of their own players and exceed the salary cap, so long as that player has been on the same team for a minimum of three years without being waived. For MLS, a player like this might not take up a DP slot, such as the Seattle Sounders re-signing Osvaldo Alonso or LA Galaxy re-signing Omar Gonzalez.
Q. Kind of like how retention funds work?
A. Kind of but not really. Retention Funds were used to buy down a re-signing player's cap hit. This could prevent them from being a Designated Player.
Q. When did the MLSPU and MLS sign the CBA in 2010?
A. It was announced an agreement was made March 23, 2010.
Q. Did the teams strike until that point?
A. No. First kick wasn't until March 25, 2010. The teams trained and held their preseasons as they normally would.
Q. Are we expecting the CBA discussions to come right up to the wire?
A. First Kick this season is March 6, 2015, so there's two and a half weeks of less time to negotiate. I'd be surprised to see something decided before March, especially if the MLSPU is this adamant about Free Agency.