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Feb 23, 2010

Work stoppage the only option for players' union?

After a weekend in which MLS and its players' union traded insults, charges and countercharges regarding negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, there was one issue in which some clarity was achieved. Any work stoppage that takes place will have to be initiated by the union.

The fireworks began on Friday, with players going public about what they perceived as the lack of seriousness on the part of league negotiators to address the issues most important to them. A day later, and without getting into specifics, MLS president Mark Abbott fired back, insisting that the league had "made proposals" on those items, among them guaranteed contracts, unilateral contract options, as well as increasing the money spent -- not necessarily salaries -- on players by $60 million. Any form of free agency for players whose contracts had expired was out of the question, although Abbott vaguely stated in a phone interview that "you don't have to have free agency to address that concern."

The $60 million figure brought a retort from union Executive Director Bob Foose, who in an e-mail claimed that under the league's plan the growth of the league's salary cap would actually slow to 4.8 percent per year as opposed to 5.9 percent under the old CBA. It was also alleged that the league used some creative accounting by including some of the money spent by expansion teams as part of the increase.

But amid the mudslinging, the kicker was when Abbott, in an interview with The Associated Press, indicated that the league would be perfectly content to continue operating under the old CBA and not lock out the players. This now puts the onus on the union to invoke the nuclear option, a strike, and with it a possible nuclear winter.

So the question is: Will it? A strike is about the only card the union has left to play if the players are serious about fighting for what they believe in. Given the owners' deep pockets, and the relatively shallow financial resources of the players, management has long possessed more leverage in these negotiations. But the thought of Philadelphia's debut game or the opening of Red Bull Arena being canceled, or worse, fielded with replacement players, might be enough to drive both sides toward finding a mutually agreeable solution.

On the issues of guaranteed contracts and unilateral options, the latter scenario seems achievable, despite the frustrations vented by various players. And even as the two sides traded barbs on salaries, players insisted that this isn't an issue of huge concern. Free agency is, however, and while Abbott made it clear on Saturday that the league will not concede this issue, the logic he used to defend the league's position made a lecture on collateralized debt obligations seem pedestrian by comparison.

Abbott said the international market already provides players with expired contracts a form of free agency, and that "our system helps us to compete effectively against international clubs and leagues for our players." It's as if deciding to move to a European club were as simple as driving to the next county, and assumes that the player in question is in demand. A player like Kevin Hartman, who is currently out of contract after failing to come to terms with Kansas City, is clearly in the twilight of his career. This is a period when the salary of such a player is going down, not up. Suffice it to say, Abbott's logic doesn't make sense to the players, either.

"Frankly, the league's explanation on free agency has been kind of confusing to all of us," said one player representative, who asked not to be identified. "With the salary cap, it's not as if they can pay everyone $200,000."

But perhaps more revealing was how Abbott, in his defense of the league's position on free agency, kept returning to the league's single-entity system, and how this needed to be preserved.

"The league spent a lot of time creating its structure in the early years before we launched, and we did so against a background of repeated attempts and failures to launch professional soccer leagues in the United States, most notably the NASL," said Abbott on Saturday. "We studied what we thought were the pitfalls of the other professional leagues in North America, and we created the system that we have. While we've made really significant proposals to address some of the players' concerns, [free agency] is one area where we're not going to make a change."

This desire to protect the system is rooted in the lawsuit that the players filed against the league back in 1997, and in which MLS prevailed in 2002. It explains why one union demand, that of having clubs negotiate their own player contracts, is now apparently off the table. Whenever the league deals with players, it is determined to appear as one business, not 16 individual franchises. But by allowing teams to essentially bid on an out-of-contract player, that tenet begins to fall apart and could be used as a means to challenge single-entity status in court yet again. It means that the league's stance on free agency could be more about precedent and less about economics.

Preserving parity among the league's teams could also be a driver, with the concern being that players would gravitate to clubs that are better run and in warmer climates.

Whether protecting single-entity status or preserving parity is what is really driving the league's stance on free agency is unclear, as repeated attempts to reach Abbott following the round of interviews he gave on Saturday proved unsuccessful. But the league does appear determined to yield no ground on this issue, meaning the union, if it does strike, could find itself banging its head against an impenetrable wall.

In the interim, expect negotiations -- however intermittent -- to continue into March. It makes no sense for the union to strike now, since the players would be the only ones losing money. But one interesting test will come on March 9, when the Columbus Crew will host Mexican side Toluca in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. The union could make something of a statement if it struck before that match. Conversely, playing the match could be a goodwill gesture that might foster continued negotiations.

Regardless, the chances of the MLS season starting on time are looking slimmer by the day.

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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