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Why Major League Soccer is edging toward a work stoppage

As the days tick by until the start of the Major League Soccer regular season, the labor situation involving MLS and the MLS Players Union looks increasingly grim. So grim is the reality that, by my estimation, there is a better than 50-50 chance that there will be a strike.

Never mind the discussions about minimum salaries and the salary cap. Without getting into specifics, an MLS source indicated over the weekend that MLS is committed to increasing both. Rather, it is the diametrically opposed views on free agency that are cause for worry.

My pessimism comes from the fact that, as has been the case throughout these negotiations, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. The MLSPU has made its position clear: There will not be a new CBA without free agency, although its precise definition remains open to interpretation. A limited form of free agency could be granted to players after a certain number of years, or it could be based on appearances.

But the position staked out by MLS has been equally succinct. It wants no part of free agency in any form. One league source stated over the weekend: "One thing we will not do is make an agreement that we think impairs our ability to grow the league just to avoid a work stoppage. That we will not do. We've got too much into this now -- 20 years into it -- to just give up on something that we believe very strongly in."

Granted, with less than two weeks left to go until the start of the regular season on March 6, we're at a point when talking points begin to end and the real negotiations begin. But there just doesn't appear to be much room for compromise.

Free agency is proving to be the stickiest point between the MLS Players Union and Don Garber and the league.

MLS has trotted out several reasons for putting up a free-agency road block. It has talked of cost certainty, even though a salary cap is already in place. MLS execs have also spoken of wanting to speak with one voice on the international market, though free agency in this case would apply to players already in the league.

Perhaps most importantly for MLS, however, is preservation of the league's single-entity structure. It is a system that has provided some stability and slow growth. It was also reverse-engineered so as to prevail in an antitrust lawsuit. Some rather arcane rules were put in place to prevent, whenever possible, any hint that MLS clubs were bidding against each other for players.

When MLS was sued by the players in the early 2000s, the league prevailed on the grounds that the market was such that players had other options, both domestically and abroad, besides MLS. The league's structure was deemed a hybrid, in that it had components of single entity and others where there was clear competition between the member clubs. Given that judgment, if MLS were to grant a form of free agency, it would leave itself more vulnerable to an antitrust lawsuit. Yes, such litigation is prohibitively expensive, but it's a possibility MLS would sooner not have to think about.

Legal challenges aside, the MLSPU has more leverage than it has ever had. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said the league is losing $100 million a year. But the values of the individual clubs have grown to such an extent that expansion fees have cleared the $100 million barrier. The new television deal brings in $90 million per season. MLS has been very public in signing high-priced internationals, both from the U.S. national team and elsewhere. And for all the talk that free agency affects just a small subset of players, the union remains unified on the issue.

But as logically compelling as those arguments are, the owners appear to have the upper hand in terms of leverage in this situation. The MLSPU is asking for something only MLS and its owners can grant, and the union insists the issue will not be used as a bargaining chip to extract concessions in other areas, like increasing the salary cap. So the only way to tip the balance back towards the players is to strike.

The advisability of that approach is open to debate. It seems easier to keep 20 owners unified as opposed to 600 players. The deep pockets of the owners also allow them to better withstand the financial pain of a strike, though the union says it is prepared. But in many ways the MLSPU has little choice. If it agrees to a CBA without free agency, it will simply be left with a slightly richer version of the status quo. Its previous claims of going to the mat on the issue will also ring awfully hollow, and could weaken its bargaining position during negotiations for the next CBA. Any future threat of a strike over free agency will not be taken seriously.

How damaging would a strike be? That all depends on its length. The harm done by a work stoppage of one to two weeks could be repaired. Anything longer than that and the entrenched positions of both sides begin to harden even further, lessening the likelihood of getting a deal done.

Of course, reaching an agreement without a work stoppage remains the most preferable outcome, and to reach that goal each side will have to give a little so that it can claim victory, as imperfect as it might be. To that end much confidence is being placed in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The FMCS came to the rescue the last time a CBA was being negotiated. This time five years ago, when the mediators first took part, not one issue had been resolved, but a deal got done. Yet none of those seemed as intractable as this disagreement over free agency is.

Hopefully, the FMCS can once again weave its magic.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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