For weeks, the MLS Players Union has insisted that it was unified enough to initiate a work stoppage. On Thursday, the players moved a step closer to proving their point, with multiple sources indicating that they voted 383-2 to go on strike if a new collective bargaining agreement between the union and MLS has not been agreed upon by 12:01 a.m. ET on March 23.
The vote, which was conducted March 1 by secret ballot, grants the union's Bargaining Committee the authority to call a strike. Barring a settlement or change in plan, the work stoppage is set to begin just two days before the first game of the season, between Seattle Sounders FC and the expansion Philadelphia Union, with one MLSPU source stating, "We don't want Philadelphia getting on the plane."
The vote is the clearest indication yet of the lengths the union will go to in order to obtain more guaranteed contracts, fewer unilateral contract options, and some form of free agency for out-of-contract players.
"I think from our perspective it was nice to know that we are unified," said MLSPU executive board member and Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad. "We can say we're unified all we want, but for guys to put pen to paper, it was a good sign of solidarity.
"We're a long way off from getting a deal done, and we're not going to play soccer until the CBA is changed. We think it's very unfair, and we feel it needs to be a fair contract before we sign it."
Thursday's disclosure set off a predictable round of point-counterpoint between the MLSPU and the league, even as the two sides completed three days of meetings with federal mediator George H. Cohen in attendance.
MLS president Mark Abbott said in a prepared statement: "We have an understanding with the Union and the mediator that we will not publicly discuss what takes places during these bargaining sessions. As such, we were disappointed to see comments from a number of players characterizing the status of the negotiations and the possibility of a strike. We do believe that the players' comments do not accurately reflect the proposals that we have made to address the players' concerns or the productive nature of the discussions between MLS and the Players Union."
Union executive director Bob Foose responded by saying that the strike vote and refusal to play without a new CBA "is not a change in position by the [MLSPU] and should not be read to reflect in any way upon what has, or has not, occurred this week in the meetings with the mediator and the league."
But Abbott went on to highlight the silver lining regarding the current state of the negotiations. Namely, that the two sides have agreed to continue talks in the presence of Cohen next week, after a series of discussions that the MLS executive called "productive."
Just how productive the talks have been, neither side would say, given Cohen's gag order. Both sides had also agreed that as long as Cohen is present, neither side would initiate a work stoppage. Thursday's announcement now puts a clear limit on how long the mediator will be involved in the proceedings.
As for how next week's talks will play out, Onstad admitted that the union hopes the strike vote will bring "a different dynamic into the room." If the union is to achieve its goals, that change in tenor is imperative. The MLSPU clearly has only one card left to play: following through with its threat to go on strike. That said, other union sources indicated they haven't abandoned all hope that a deal can be hammered out.
"It's getting down to it; we don't have much time left," said one veteran player who asked not to be identified. "The process is very slow and has really lingered on, and now we're left with [two weeks] or so until the start of the season. There is a lot of work to do still. It's going to be a busy week next week."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.