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Feb 11, 2010

Inclement weather halts MLS labor negotiations

WASHINGTON -- Major League Soccer and its players union will not be making their Feb. 12 deadline for reaching an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, the MLSPU has confirmed.

The previous five-year collective bargaining agreement expired on Jan. 31, but both sides agreed that, rather than let the situation result in a lockout or a strike, they would give themselves two more weeks to come to an agreement.

The failure to reach a new agreement, however, is less due to an inability to reconcile differences at the negotiating table than a consequence of inclement weather, which has seen Washington get pounded with almost 40 inches of snow since Saturday. The snow has left swathes of the city powerless, and it has crippled public transportation and made driving nearly impossible.

"They weren't able to come down to Washington," MLSPU director of player relations Eddie Pope said of the MLS owners. MLS commissioner Don Garber and president Mark Abbott were scheduled to travel to Washington on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. "Because of the weather there have been a couple of setbacks," said Pope. "We've barely talked. We're just now starting to crank things back up.

"There's nothing we can do about the weather."

MLS and the players union will be releasing a new statement announcing a second extension to the deadline. What that new date will be is not yet clear.

With the first game of the season, between the Philadelphia Union and Seattle Sounders, now exactly six weeks away, the margin for error is shrinking rapidly.

"It's been all right," Pope said of the latest round of negotiations. "We are just trying to take things one step at a time."

As evidenced by Pope's remark, the players have been nothing but patient because, from my understanding of the numbers that are on the table, the players are not being unreasonable. Far from it.

The league, by its own admission, is thriving. Teams are being added left and right. If Montreal does indeed join MLS in 2012, as expected, the league will have added teams in six consecutive seasons, going back to 2007, when Toronto FC joined. Not all teams are breaking even, but revenue is up. But while clubs thrive, players do not. Relative to revenue, their salaries have shrunk. In other words, the money the league has been generating has grown far quicker than player salaries.

When players in other leagues threatened to stop working in order to extract more money from the owners, it was sometimes hard to empathize. But these players are not wealthy men trying to get wealthier, for the most part. In 2009, only four of 355 MLS players had a base salary of more than $1 million. Just nine were in the upper American tax bracket. At the other end of the spectrum, 46 players were making the $34,000 minimum for senior players, while 24 played for the $20,100 development player wage. In 2008, when the salary for development players was $12,900, no less than 80 players had to somehow survive on that income, for what is essentially a full-time job.

The league continues to proselytize about slow growth, forever pointing to America's professional soccer history, which is littered with failed ventures, such as the North American Soccer League's infamous flameout after brief success. But growth is achieved through the players. As it stands, even the slightly above-average are often disinclined to stay in MLS and prefer to join a third-tier European league instead. And the fact that MLS refuses to ensure that all elite college players sign, rather than try their luck in Europe, is nothing less than criminal.

Your solid MLS starter who is not a star seems to be the lowest on MLS's priority ladder. Yet if nothing else, MLS should be taking care of those players. In the foreseeable future, the stars will keep leaving, and the prodigies will, too. That leaves your solid starting players as your foundation. They'll be the recognizable faces, the hometown heroes, by virtue of having been around. But currently, MLS is rewarding defection by those very players to insignificant Scandinavian leagues by refusing to pay them what they are worth -- or even half that.

Take Lee Nguyen. Nguyen, who would make a good but not stellar MLS midfielder, had every intention of returning to MLS after a four-season stay in the Netherlands, Denmark and Vietnam. With FC Dallas positioned to pick him up once he signed with the league, he would have been the sort of player who could provide Dallas with a building block, a hometown hero (Nguyen was born in nearby Richardson, Texas, and grew up in Dallas). One who would be recognizable could reach out to the community and, who knows, maybe sell a few jerseys, too. But the league lowballed him, offering him no more than the $34,000 minimum, for a promising 23-year-old with three years of experience in Europe and three caps for the U.S.

Without securing the services of the Lee Nguyens of the world, MLS will struggle to build a solid base of players and fans. So if it wants those, it will have to take care of the above-average players in the new CBA.


Quick thought

I watched Freddy Adu make his first start for Aris Thessaloniki against Xanthi in the quarterfinals of the Greek Cup on Wednesday. On a field so drenched by the torrential rain that every step on it was commemorated with a huge crater, Adu made little impact. He was mostly bypassed in the early going, not getting into a rough-and-tumble game that doesn't suit him in the slightest.

Adu's one shining moment came in the 32nd minute, when he sent a nice long ball into the path of an Aris striker who was scandalously denied a penalty. But Adu followed that play up with a stupid loss of possession in the 36th, when he passed a ball straight into the man covering him.

It took me a full eight minutes to ascertain that Adu was still on the field in the second half and until the 77th minute to realize he'd been subbed off in the 67th, so invisible had he been.

Ineffectual out on the left in a dreadful game, in what looks like a dreadful league (I haven't seen enough of it to make a blanket statement), the golden boy's fall from grace is turning grisly.

Aris, fifth in the Greek league, would tie Xanthi, 10th, with a 1-1 equalizer in the dying seconds, aided by a valiant effort by Eddie Johnson, who came on in the 74th minute. Amazingly, the sparse crowd that had been conned into paying money to see this game still managed to make a riotous stink.


Three to watch

Game
Should your loved one be so tolerant, Sunday's Valentine's Day Serie A matchup between No. 4 Napoli and No. 1 Inter Milan should be an intriguing one. Watch especially for the two finest young playmakers in soccer, Napoli's Marek Hamsik and Inter's Wesley Sneijder, as they go head-to-head.

Player
AC Milan's Ronaldinho was omitted from Dunga's roster for Brazil's March 2 World Cup tuneup against Ireland. It had been widely suggested that Ronaldinho's stellar play of late (he's scored the second-most goals, six, in Serie A since January) would have earned him a recall after falling out of favor last season. Against Udinese on Friday, will his wrath be furious or will he go back to being the fat guy who once was good?

Also
If Frasier Crane taught us anything, it's that Seattleites are suckers for imports from Europe. Lo and behold, the Sounders have lured one of BBC's announcers to call their radio and television games next season. Arlo White, from Radio 5 Live, who frequently worked alongside the legendary John Motson, will be manning the mike this season. How the vintage BBC sound will come off when the Sounders play, say, the New England Revolution will be worth hearing.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.

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