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Dec 22, 2008

Players Union and MLS headed for showdown

MLS players want pay levels to improve, but they are just as concerned about gaining respect. The rhetoric sounds similar to labor positioning in other sports, but there are differences relating to scale.

Both the MLS Players Union and the MLS declined comment for this story regarding negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement, which could start soon in anticipation of next December's expiration of the current CBA.

But these negotiations have a chance to proceed smoothly, since the players appear uninterested in challenging the centrally controlled structure of the league, including the salary cap.

Some truths seem to be held as self-evident: Minimum salaries for MLS players are far too low for the league to be considered respectable, and revenues do not warrant major increases on the pay scale.

But some questions need to be resolved.

For one, the league's books remain closed to the outside world, so nobody knows for certain the league's financial state. Even the players union has not been allowed to view the league's finances and, until that happens, will be unable to devise a reasonable negotiating strategy.

That has not dampened the players' enthusiasm to get started. And, though the players sometimes sound Pollyanna-ish, they present themselves as a well-informed, well-intentioned work force.

"We want to be involved at the forefront of the next talks," said New England Revolution defender Jay Heaps, the team's player representative. "We've always been in the backseat.

"Anyone can tell you right now that making $15,000 is almost impossible to live on. But this is more about player rights. That's vital. We've been treated and thought of as kind of a work force, and we're more involved than that -- we're more invested in the league than we've been allowed to be.

"Monetarily, we are not going to try to blow this thing up at all. But things need to change fundamentally. Obviously, it's not a great time to be negotiating, with the economy the way it is. But I assume we all -- players and owners and the league -- want to be on the same page. We are not going to go in asking for million-dollar raises. The changes we're asking for have nothing to do with the economy or overall income; they are fundamental changes that don't require millions of dollars."

Labor negotiations in domestic soccer appear much different from similar dealings in other U.S. sports leagues. One reason is the relative newness of the league and the low financial expectations. Another reason, though, is a genuine feeling of empathy, that everyone actually is in the same boat; this is something that sets the MLS apart from other leagues and sets soccer apart from other sports.

When MLS' alleged monopoly was challenged in Boston Federal Court in a high-stakes case that drew the attention and backing of the NFLPA before it was settled in 2000, the conviviality of the "soccer people" outside the courtroom was striking. Attorneys arguing to support a league that might greatly limit player rights would then confer with those very players about tips for coaching youngsters. And players -- even the roughest, toughest defenders -- would respond with their best advice.

There seemed to be a sense that most of those involved in the case truly wanted MLS to survive, and they were eager to get on the field and get back to playing and teaching the game. There were tense moments and adversarial confrontations on the witness stand. But there was a disarming, almost innocent, quality about some of the outside-the-courtroom conversations, unlike the tone of similar situations in other sports' labor dealings.

And that conviviality could -- and should -- mark the next CBA negotiations with MLS. The players' words are striking a reasonable chord. But an expected late-February ruling regarding arbitration for the SuperLiga means the potential for storm clouds on the horizon. If the players win that one, they will sue for damages. But again, the monetary stakes are not great.

The players displayed solidarity in proposing that individual MLS teams have the right to determine the SuperLiga payouts to players in August. This had the dual effect of sending a message of unity to league headquarters and upsetting commissioner Don Garber, who handed the trophy to Revolution captain Steve Ralston but took the winners' medals back to New York after the players refused to go on stage to collect them.

The SuperLiga dispute might have set the tone for CBA negotiations. The players seemed united, and their demands were not unreasonable. However, the league is not used to being challenged. It was unwilling to consider that compromising would not have been a major cost but could have created a great amount of goodwill.

So what will be the issues when CBA talks begin? Will the absence of deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, off to Arsenal as CEO, have an effect?

The players almost do not know where to start.

The league was up and running for eight years before the first management-player talks were conducted. The players were starting from scratch, and they are not much past that right now.

The first-year minimum and developmental salaries are unreasonably low. By cutting the reserve team program, the league seems intent on redirecting some of that investment toward full-time players. That is a positive trend.

Also, the players are seeking more freedom to move within the league; they say that if an out-of-contract player and team fail to agree to terms, the player should be allowed to make a deal with another MLS team. The salary cap greatly inhibits the chance for bidding wars for player services.

"If a player plays out his contract and can't come to terms with the team and another team wants him," Heaps said, "his team should be forced to either match what the other team wants or negotiate something within a certain period of time. There should be limitations on how far they can extend it.

"[Former Revolution defender] Avery John was out of MLS for a year, and that was unreasonable. It had nothing to do with money, just basic player rights. Nobody is asking for $5 million or $500,000; he was asking for market value, what another team was willing to pay in MLS. We are not talking like Avery John played in the World Cup so he needs to make $500,000. We are not calling for a change in the single-entity structure, but the rules have to be set with players' rights in mind. They set the salary cap; nothing is changing."

Heaps is savvy about this subject. He has lived the American soccer experience at several levels and is adding to his knowledge during the offseason while interning at a company in Boston's financial district.

"Our tone is, let's start talking and see where we are, how far apart or how close are we," Heaps said. "I believe we could be closer than anyone realizes. Everyone is on the same page in the union, but I'm saying we could be close within the league -- when we finally sit down and level heads realize it's not million-dollar contracts we want. But the league has completely changed since 1996. We've built a very strong base, and saying we want fundamental changes to players' rights doesn't mean we want to alter the league and all of a sudden have free agency all the time.

"Every league started with some restrictive-style free agency, and that is something we'll go into, but we want to do what is best for the players and for the league.

"I understand the business side of the league. There are reasons why they are single-entity and want to control certain aspects, because we are a fresh league; we're not the NBA or NFL, and our ratings are where they are for a reason. We have smart people in the MLS and they have done an unbelievable job. But we've done as much on the field to create a product as the front office has, and that's why it should be a two-way street, not a one-way, unilateral dealings with the players on the wrong side of that unilateral relationship."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for the Boston Globe and ESPN.com.

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