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Feb 20, 2010

MLS labor stoppage looms as CBA talks stall

So much for the spirit of cooperation.

The radio silence that has characterized negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and the MLS players union ended abruptly Friday, with the MLSPU alleging that the league has shown little inclination to compromise on the issues the union holds dear.

That list includes club autonomy, guaranteed contracts, free agency and an end to unilateral contract options. According to MLSPU executive board member and Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad, little headway has been made in resolving these issues, despite the two sides meeting last Wednesday and Thursday.

"We feel like we've made a huge effort to be reasonable, to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure," Conrad said. "At this point they're not even humoring us with something tangible. If things stay where they are, then it's inevitable that a work stoppage is going to happen."

While the players engaged in a verbal fusillade, the league itself remained eerily quiet. An MLS spokesman declined to address specific issues, stating only: "Negotiations are ongoing. Meetings have been scheduled for the upcoming week. Both sides have agreed to talk through Feb. 25, and the league remains hopeful that a solution can be found."

But according to another union board member, Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad, that hope isn't shared by the players. At present, additional talks are slated for next week, but given the current state of the negotiations, it's unclear if those meetings will take place.

"We'd just be negotiating against ourselves," Onstad said. "What's the point?"

Conrad added, "If we did have a meeting I don't think our side would be doing too much talking. We'd probably just hear them out, and then that would be it. We've defended our side and explained ourselves and had meetings to clarify our positions."

It was only a few weeks ago that the negotiations appeared to be on course to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion, with Onstad indicating that the league had shown an increased willingness to address the union's concerns. So just before the original Jan. 31 expiration of the old CBA, the MLSPU submitted a proposal to the league, one that Conrad insists contained "plenty of wiggle room for both sides."

But due in part to the brutal weather that lashed the East Coast for much of last week, the league's counterproposal wasn't delivered until last Thursday night. According to Conrad, it offered little material change in the way the league and its players conduct business.

"The major issues need to be addressed in some fashion," he said. "To simply cast them off as no big deal and think we're going to accept what they're going to propose is preposterous."

Highlighting the union's cause are the situations involving current MLS players Adrian Serioux of Toronto FC, Kevin Hartman of Kansas City, and Dave van den Bergh of FC Dallas. All three players have been told by their respective clubs that they are not in their future plans, yet the clubs retain the players' rights, leaving them in a kind of soccer purgatory. A similar situation led Steve Ralston to retire from MLS earlier this month and sign with second-tier AC St. Louis. The union contends that all these players should be allowed to negotiate with any team they like after the expiration of their contracts.

"You have a guy who gets terminated, who more or less gets fired, and his former employer holds his rights, so his next employer has to give compensation," said Todd Dunivant, one of the Los Angeles Galaxy's player representatives. "It just doesn't make sense to us.

"You've got a guy like Ralston, a poster boy for this league and a guy who has been in MLS his whole career and couldn't have done things more professionally. The way he was treated at the end of [last] year is just another example of how the league just takes advantage of the power they have and don't reward players as they should."

So what's next? Many eyes will now be fixed on the Feb. 25 deadline both sides agreed to earlier this month. Dunivant indicated he thought the likelihood of the two sides agreeing to another extension was "close to zero," but the reality is that in some respects it's an artificial target. Its passing doesn't prevent further negotiations from taking place, although it does allow either side to initiate a work stoppage.

The players, for their part, stopped short of saying such an event was imminent, but they are ready for any eventuality.

"We've definitely talked about all possibilities," Conrad said. "And if [a work stoppage] happens, then we're unified on what we're passionate about and what we think needs to change. We will stand by that until it does."

Given that the league holds almost all the leverage, since no game revenue is being lost at present, what will likely happen is that the negotiations will devolve into what Conrad called "a long slog into March." At that point, the proximity to the start of the regular season will either drive both sides into action or drive them apart. League observers of all stripes are hoping that the former scenario is what comes to pass.

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 eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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