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MLS players preparing to take pay cuts, but ‘it has to make sense for everybody’

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Stefan Frei, Cristian Roldan express willingness to “do their part” in wake of league-wide financial hit.

SOCCER: NOV 10 MLS Cup Final - Toronto FC at Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the Seattle Sounders return to the field this year, it’s likely that fans will be absent from the stands. For the players, that’s not likely to be the only thing missing.

Reports surfaced two weeks ago that MLS had approached its players about taking a drastic salary pay cut, fueled largely by increasingly likelihood of canceled games and lack of fans in attendance if games do resume. While some states are loosening stay-at-home orders, few projections have fans attending large-scale sporting events until the fall at the earliest.

For MLS — which relies significantly on game day revenue in the absence of a lucrative television deal — returning to the field without fans means the league will take a significant hit this year financially. Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer estimated the league-wide loss could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, senior members of the Sounders coaching staff have already volunteered to take pay reductions and teams around the league are already starting to take even more drastic actions. So it wasn’t entirely surprising to hear Cristian Roldan or Stefan Frei acknowledge an openness that they may not see the full value of their contracts this year.

“There’s been discussions between the union and the league,” Frei said. “For me personally, I saw this coming. We are part of society just like everybody else and this affects everybody and I want to do my part. If that means some of the money I was promised, I’m not going to be getting or I’m going to be getting at a later point, we’re ready to do our part.”

Said Roldan: “All of us players understand the circumstances, and it’s tough times right now. So I think all of the players are bought into a reduction. We understand other leagues have taken the initiative on this given the situation. We’ll see what happens.”

While the players are seemingly on board with sacrificing some of their salary, the devil is in the details.

Jeff Carlisle of ESPN reported that MLS approached the MLSPA about a 50% pay reduction, though there were safeguards to prevent salaries for any player from going below $100,000. Without confirming the report, Frei conceded that the numbers the league approached the union will likely need to be negotiated.

“I think the first words we heard from the league were a little bit shocking for some,” Frei said.

MLS deals are not typically guaranteed for the life of the contract, and the league often adds unilateral options — typically at least two years. That means a team can cut a player with significant time remaining on their deal. Frei noted that these deals only provide limited security to the players.

“You take the risks when you sign a contract that you could be blowing up and going to a World Cup, and not be making a single dollar more,” Frei said. “You also know that this is the money I’m going to be getting for two, three years at most. We’re not getting 10-year deals here. For most people, their incomes will go down drastically once they’re done playing.

“We’re eager to do our part, but it has to make sense for everybody at the same time.”