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A frank conversation about the MLS CBA negotiations

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Here's where negotiations stand and where we think they might be going.

No one likes to talk about this stuff but we have to.
No one likes to talk about this stuff but we have to.
Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

The single biggest storyline this offseason is the state of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That's the document that lays out the basic terms under which MLS will operate, at least in relationship to its players. So, it's probably a good time to get a better understanding of what this all entails.

Hold up, did you say Jan. 31? Like two days from today?

Yep, that's the same one.

They must be working around the clock to get a deal done, right?

Uh, no, actually they don't seem to be in a particular rush. All the reports suggest the two sides are still "far apart" on key issues.

What happens if they don't have a deal by Jan. 31?

Let's allow Brad Evans to explain: "We've got an agreement that we'll continue training through preseason just like the last time."

How does that work?

It's pretty common practice in labor negotiations to operate under the existing CBA as long as progress is being made toward a new one. Work stoppages are really a last resort tool and we're not at a last resort right now. Chances are, MLS players will participate in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals that are scheduled for the last week of February and the first week of March.

But what happens if they don't have a deal by the time the season starts?

The players say they won't play without a deal (that's a strike). The owners may not allow the season to begin under the cloud of a strike possibly cutting it short (that's a lockout). So, there's a very good chance the season will be delayed without at least the framework for a deal.

How likely is a work stoppage?

Again, here's what Evans said when asked if the players were willing to strike without a CBA being in place: "Absolutely." At this point, the players have been very consistent in their messaging and there's really no reason to doubt they'll strike if it comes to that.

Have MLS players ever gone on strike before?

No. In fact the only time North American soccer players went on strike was in 1979 when the NASL players staged a strike. It didn't go well. Players crossed the picket lines en masse, no games were canceled and the strike was called off after about a week and the league folded before there was any kind of agreement.

How likely is something like that to happen this time?

Not very likely. The players are much better organized and seem to have more of a unified interest.

Can players even afford to go on strike?

That's one of the great unknowns. Surely, they've been told to prepare for some length of work stoppage and it's possible the union has a fund to help lower-paid players make ends meet for a short period of time, but you can bet your bippy that players on the lower end of the pay scale aren't exactly looking forward to a strike.

Would this affect the USL PRO season?

USL PRO probably won't start until about a month after MLS, but even if there's no agreement by then the league expects to go on as normal. They won't be able to use on-loan MLS players and any MLS player who participated in USL PRO would almost surely been seen as crossing the picket line, but the games will likely go on.

Could players decide to join NASL?

Sure, but that probably requires them to take a pay cut and likely close the door on playing in MLS this year. If the work stoppage looks like it will last more than a week or two and maybe even force the cancellation of a significant portion of the season, this becomes a more viable option. The same probably applies to the possibility of playing abroad. One caveat here, though: finding outside employment would be much easier in the event of a lockout than a strike. It's unclear how FIFA would treat ITC's in either case.

Might the owners really lock out the players?

There's been zero indication from the league that this is a possibility, but I wouldn't rule it out. If the season starts with no CBA and no guarantee from the players that they won't strike at some point in the middle, the owners will lose a ton of leverage. It's ugly, but that's why we've seen lockouts in the NFL, NBA and NHL over the past 10 years. The 1994 Major League Baseball players' strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series is a lesson from which owners seem keen on learning.

This sounds like it could get ugly.

Yes, it could. And that might be the best thing negotiations have going for them: Both sides have a lot to lose potentially.

What are the main points of contention?

Free agency is the thing that has gotten most of the attention and the issue players have put front and center. But Bob Foose, the head of the players' union, clarified that compensation is still a big issue where the players and league are pretty far apart.

How realistic are the players' demands?

Well, we don't really know what exactly they are asking for. All we know is that they've made some suggestions to the league and the league has made counter offers. The league seems willing to talk about changing the way players are compensated and were surely already planning to raise the salary cap, but they don't seem particularly interested in even discussing free agency.

Why are the owners so against free agency?

The answers they've given are frustrating, to say the least. Effectively, their public answer has been "because, we don't want to." There's some stuff about their ability to compete in the global market and talking with a unified voice, but none of it really passes the smell test. More likely, it's because free agency chips away at their single-entity status.

Their what?

Unlike most North American sports leagues where there are a bunch of independent teams operating under one umbrella, MLS is technically one company with a single interest. Without getting too deep down the rabbit hole, there's already been a ton of movement away from that ethos over the past decade as the league has become far more competitive. It's entirely possible the league is worried free agency could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and opens them up to legal action that could destroy their status as single-entity. That would be a major blow to the way they do business.

Are the players interested in breaking up single-entity?

Probably not directly. As long as they have some freedom to move around the league, are being paid a fair wage and otherwise being treated well, they probably aren't itching to get embroiled in what could be a multi-year fight that would likely cost millions of dollars and still might not result in the desired outcome.

Aren't owners also worried about escalating salaries with free agency?

That's what they say, but In the short term this is a nonissue, quite frankly. As long as there's a salary cap limiting how much a team can spend, there's effectively a fixed pool of money from which to pay players. Whether or not they can choose where they want to play doesn't inherently force the league to spend more. There's probably some long term potential of owners wanting to spend more if there's free agency in order to keep their teams together, but you can probably understand why the players don't find that to be their problem.

If it doesn't lead to big raises, is free agency even in the players' best interest?

Being able to choose where you work is obviously a pretty big perk, but there is a line of thinking that unless the salary cap is directly tied to revenues that free agency is not necessarily much of a panacea for players.

Is that just a fancy way of saying that there's probably a price on players' desire for free agency?

That seems like a distinct possibility. If MLS comes out with an offer that gives the players everything they want except free agency, I'd be shocked if the players balked.

Should I be panicking yet?

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think a deal is going to get done and I have a feeling the players will get most of what they want. Labor negotiations are about two things: money and power (isn't that how the world works?). If it makes financial sense for the owners to give the players what they want and they don't need to drastically change the way they do business, they'd be foolish to risk the long term harm that would come with an extended work stoppage. Of course the owners don't want to give away the keys to the castle and they claim to be losing a good deal of money at the moment, but it's not so hard to see a time in the near future where they are turning a solid profit. A work stoppage that forces the cancellation of games probably pushes that timeframe back and the owners surely don't want that anymore than the players do.