When Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union announced they would continue negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement through Feb. 12, it was followed by a huge sigh of relief. The proverbial two-footed tackle that is a work stoppage had been dodged, at least for the moment. But the news also came with a stark realization: The hardest part is just now beginning.
"That's the way the negotiations normally go," said former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt, who is currently an investor in the Chicago Red Stars of Women's Professional Soccer, as well as the president and CEO of the MISL's Milwaukee Wave. "They hammer out all the minor stuff and work their way towards the center."
So just how big are these obstacles? That depends on each side's willingness to compromise. Under the previous CBA, in addition to the league overseeing all player contracts, teams retained the rights to a player even after their agreement had expired. And in the majority of cases, the clubs were free to terminate a player's contract by midseason without compensation. It is these staples of the previous agreement that the MLSPU is seeking to reverse.
When it comes to the latter two issues, there appear to be some creative ways to find a resolution. Free agency could be granted on a limited basis, say, only for players who have been in the league a minimum number of years. And with the league's salary cap still in place, there is likely to be little economic impact.
A similar arrangement could be used to resolve the dispute on guaranteed contracts, in which years of service or a specified salary threshold could cause an agreement to be guaranteed. There is also the possibility of MLS following the system used by WPS, in which such deals are granted to a set number of players. Of course, the length of this kind of agreement is an issue as well.
"When I was with the Fire, it took a special player to get a two-year guaranteed contract," said Wilt. "A one-year guarantee, yeah, there's a lot of players you'd feel comfortable doing that for."
It is these shades of gray that are the fuel for any negotiation, and what allow each side to walk away feeling that they gained or preserved something. That's what makes the union's goal of clubs negotiating their own player contracts a potential deal-breaker. By extension this is a challenge to the league's single-entity system, and there appears to be no middle ground. MLS spent considerable time and money defending the players' lawsuit that was originally filed back in 1997, one in which a jury agreed that the league's single-entity system was legal. That verdict was eventually upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 2002, and the possibility that MLS will bargain away any underpinnings of such a hard-fought victory seems nonexistent.
"It goes to the core of the lawsuit," said Wilt about the union's desire to have clubs oversee their own player contracts. "If [the league] gives on that, the attorneys will say, 'Aha! You're not truly single entity. You're 16 separate businesses.' It becomes a legal issue and a precedent that they could then go back to court and tear down the whole model.
"It has nothing to do with the direct economics. It has to do with the precedent of single entity."
If the MLSPU refuses to budge on this issue, that increases the likelihood of a work stoppage. The same is true if management decides no compromise is possible on the issues of free agency and guaranteed contracts, at which point things could get very ugly.
It wouldn't be the first time that the threat of a work stoppage has loomed over the proceedings. According to MLSPU executive board member Pat Onstad, management first threatened a lockout several weeks ago, although the rhetoric has softened since.
"Maybe it was a test to see how strong the union was, to see if we would cave early," said Onstad of the lockout threat. "But the players have been very united, and I've been very impressed with the determination of the group and where the group wants this CBA headed."
Of course, it's easy to be strong when the paychecks are still coming. Management would also appear to have the upper hand in that the regular season is still more than seven weeks away, meaning it will be a while before they would start losing revenue.
That's when the nightmare scenario would start to set in, one that would impact several national teams as well as MLS and its players. For the U.S. national team, its 2006 World Cup roster contained 11 domestic performers. That number looks set to decrease this time around with between six and eight MLS players likely to make the trip to South Africa.
But you can bet that U.S. manager Bob Bradley is not sitting idly by, hoping that a work stoppage is avoided. A U.S. side comprised almost entirely of MLS players is set to convene on Feb. 10 in preparation for a friendly against El Salvador two weeks later. And while U.S. Soccer refused to comment about what contingency plans are being made, a 1994-style residency camp will likely be instituted if a prolonged work stoppage ensues, lest the domestic internationals lose too much sharpness as the World Cup edges closer.
Fortunately, considerable progress on the labor front has been made over the last few weeks, and hope remains that an agreement can be reached by Feb. 12. Otherwise, the game's progress in the U.S., and that of MLS itself, could be irreparably damaged.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.