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Labor impasse threatens qualification

The following classified ad may or may not be getting prepared by the U.S. Soccer Federation in the coming weeks:

Attention American soccer players. Have you ever dreamed of wearing your nation's colors in a World Cup qualifier? Does the idea of spending a winter week in the sunny Caribbean during carnival appeal to you? Do you not mind being ostracized by the best players in the United States and any other union member in the country? If so, we have the perfect job for you.

OK, that ad isn't really being prepared, but the USSF would have you believe that it is ready to field a team of replacement players for February's World Cup qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago. The stalemate in negotiations between the USSF and the U.S. Soccer Players Association has escalated from mere hints of action, to an all-out battle between two sides telling very different stories.

Since the collective bargaining agreement between the sides expired at the end of 2002, they have spent 24 months making little progress toward a new proposal. The USSF pressed the issue in the fall with offers deemed laughable by the USSPA, which feels it is being cut out of the considerable profit the players have helped generate.

What are the numbers exactly? That depends on whom you talk to. According to the USSF, it has offered a 38 percent increase from the previous CBA (which ran from 1999 to 2002), while it claims the PA is demanding a 122 percent increase. The association, represented by Washington-based attorney Mark Levinstein, calls those numbers a fabrication. According to USSPA figures, U.S. national team players only received 7 percent of the revenue generated by the national team while the USSF currently boasts a $30 million surplus.

The sticking point is in the two sides' different views on the allocation of the funds generated by the U.S. national team. The USSF is a not-for-profit organization that is structured to take the funds it generates and re-invest them into the game. Its business structure calls for their $30 million surplus to be invested in player development ($14.5 million), facility development ($13.6 million) and other initiatives ($1.9 million).

"We invest heavily in the long-term success of the sport in this country," said USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse. "The revenue we've generated allows us to have the continued financial stability that allows us to grow and, at the end of the day, the money we accrue goes back into the game."

The PA's contention is that it is simply asking for a fair distribution of the money its players are helping generate. As one example, the federation generated more than $1 million in revenue from the national team's scoreless draw against Mexico on May 8, 2003. This figure was more than the federation paid out to players for the entire year of 2003 (as a group, the players received a total of $45,000 for the Mexico game). That year, the U.S. national team played in 16 matches and the USSF generated $8.7 million in revenue from the men's national team.

The players also point to the USSF's seeming willingness to spend its revenue on everything but the players generating it. Like Richard Pryor in "Brewster's Millions", the USSF has $30 million to spend, but unlike Pryor's character, the federation is being picky. One example being used by both sides is an estimated $10 million given by the USSF to help build Home Depot Center and the new stadium for F.C. Dallas in Frisco, Texas. Federation officials point to those $5 million contributions as investments in growing the sport, with Home Depot Center serving as the federation's official training center and the Frisco Complex boasting 17 youth soccer fields.

Players point to those contributions as another example of the American soccer power structure padding its own pockets. Both stadium projects already had funding structures in place before the USSF's generosity kicked in, meaning most of the USSF contributions went to cost overruns for the projects. These are costs that could have been covered by the MLS teams that stand or stood to profit most from those stadiums' constructions. The fact that the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the USSF that approved the contributions, boasts MLS commissioner Don Garber and MLS officials Sunil Gulati and Kevin Payne on its board of directors might explain why the PA has concerns.

Things turned ugly after the USSF approached the players in early October with a take it or leave it offer that was quickly rejected. The federation's response was to come back with a worse offer on Oct. 21, a deal that no longer makes the past two years a retroactive portion of a new agreement. The PA responded Nov. 24 by filing unfair labor practice charges against the USSF with the National Labor Relations Board. The players also decided to ignore the informal call for a December camp as a sign of protest. The USSF considered the act of protesting the camp a strike and proceeded to issue deadlines and threats of using replacement players for the Feb. 9 qualifier in Trinidad.

"Rather than give us a reasonable offer and engage in good faith bargaining as the labor laws require, the federation is running around trying to bully the players by threatening to use 15- and 16-year-olds against a bunch of professional soccer players from Trinidad & Tobago," said Levinstein. "It just makes no sense."

The Players Association said it was never formally notified of the December camp, with formal notification being a part of the collective bargaining agreement the sides are currently working under. The USSF categorically denied the claim.

"That is not true, they were properly notified," said Moorhouse. "We notified them; they chose not to participate in the camp."

According to the PA, the federation notified players individually but never formally notified the association of the camp until Dec. 10. The CBA clearly states that "The Federation will promptly provide the Players Association with copies of notices of all activities scheduled for or involving the United States Men's National Soccer Team ("Team") in order that the Players Association may, in addition to remaining informed of the various activities of the Players, exercise its right to communicate with Players about their activities in an informed manner."

The USSF's next move was to put off a pair of planned friendlies and issue an ultimatum. Either the PA agreed to a new CBA by Feb. 1 or the federation would field a team made up of players not currently in the national team pool. According to several current national team players, the federation then proceeded to spread the word that it meant business. National team manager Bruce Arena flew to England to speak with some of the team's top senior players to let them know that the USSF wasn't bluffing. At the same time, U.S. assistant coach Glenn Myernick flew to Germany to scout potential replacement players among the several Americans currently playing in Germany's lower divisions.

Will the USSF really follow through with replacement players for a World Cup qualifier-- and potentially risk not qualifying for the 2006 World Cup? It seems unlikely given the relative failure the last time the federation attempted to use replacements. In 1996, the USSF sent a team of lower division players along with MLS goalkeeper Mark Dodd to Peru, where the squad suffered a 4-1 drubbing. The sides quickly settled their differences while Dodd spent the rest of his playing career living with a residue of disdain among U.S. national team players.

If you believe the USSF, it is ready to play this high-stakes poker game. This is probably because of the addition of a half of a qualifying slot for the CONCACAF Region. Coupled with the team opening with a road game, the USSF is probably more willing to risk dropping points than if the region still only received three World Cup slots, and the match were at home against Mexico.

The real question is whether the federation could field a respectable team. The current national team's top stars are all behind the PA's efforts and would do their best to spread the word that playing on a "scab" team would be seen as a traitorous act that would leave players marked as sellouts, much the way Dodd was seen eight years ago. Major League Soccer players respected the boycott in 1996, and they seem even more likely to respect the PA in the current battle now that there's a MLS players union.

"People are free to do what they want but why would you want to go play in Trinidad & Tobago, with a bunch of guys who can't win," said Levinstein. "Why would you risk playing in that environment, risk getting hurt and go against the efforts of an entire group of players trying to fight for better working conditions."

Sources close to the situation say sending a youth team such as the U.S. Under-20 or U-17 team is highly unlikely. The likelihood would be fielding a team of foreign-based Americans playing in lower European divisions combined with select players from the A-League.

Who is wrong in this fight? Unlike most sports labor battles in this country, it is not a battle between millionaire players and billionaire owners. It is a battle between players risking more and more to play for the national team and a federation making more and more money because of the success of that team. If this fiasco results in the U.S. team missing its first World Cup since 1986, both sides will shoulder blame, but the side handling the purse strings will have more to answer for.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com