NEW YORK -- Major League Soccer and its players signed an agreement in principle Saturday on a five-year labor contract that avoided a strike scheduled before next week's season opener.
Negotiators began intensive talks Thursday in Washington, D.C., and the deal was signed shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday, about 5½ hours before the opening of $200 million Red Bull Arena, the league's latest showpiece stadium.
"This can all be a positive relationship going forward," Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan said. "Going forward we're going to have a real relationship with the league as opposed to being combative at times."
MLS Players Union head Bob Foose said a majority of players will receive guaranteed contracts for the first time and there will be increased player rights within the league when contracts expire. Still, the union did not achieve its goal of free agency.
"From our perspective, these negotiations were always about players' rights," Foose said, with his members wanting to bring their rights "more in line with leagues from around the world."
"Soccer is a global game and we were adamant that these changes were necessary to make MLS as competitive as possible," Foose said.
Talks went overnight until 2 a.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday, with players watching NCAA tournament games. The deal must be ratified by both sides, which appears to be a formality.
"This is a great way for Major League Soccer to start its season," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
Management was opposed to free agency within MLS, which has negotiated all contracts as a single entity on behalf of its teams since play began in 1996. MLS said players always had the option of signing with clubs overseas.
"Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements, but they will not be free agents within the league," Garber said.
Instead, there will be a re-entry draft for players whose contracts end, options are declined or who reach a certain age.
"We think we have made some real improvements in players' ability to move," Foose said.
The league's initial five-year labor contract was set to expire Jan. 31, and it ran out Feb. 25 after players refused a third short-term extension. The union said March 11 it would strike if an agreement wasn't reached before March 25, when expansion Philadelphia opens at Seattle. Player representatives flew in to attend talks, including Donovan, the league MVP. The Los Angeles Galaxy star completed a 10-week loan to Everton last weekend and said he might return to England in the event of a strike.
"It was not fun. It was tiring," Garber said, "but it was very productive."
The talks were supervised by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Scot L. Beckenbaugh, the agency's deputy director. Garber credited Cohen and his staff for helping forge a deal. Cohen said he tried to reach agreement on smaller issues to build momentum and get the sides to realize "Western civilization does not hang in the balance."
Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median -- the point at which an equal amount make above and below -- was $88,000 for 323 players listed.
Garber said Seattle and Toronto were the only profitable MLS teams last year, when regular and postseason attendance averaged 16,391, below the record average of 17,432 in the league's first season.
"We also collectively agreed that we need to grow our television ratings and attendance," Garber said. "Perhaps five years from now we have a league that's operating with all teams at a profit."
A joint player-management task force will come up with proposals to improve the league and player development.
"What I learned in this process is the players have some pretty darn good ideas," Garber said. "We'll try to find ways that we could make money together. We'll find ways that they could have a greater say in discipline."
A strike would have disrupted planning to some extent for the U.S. national team ahead of the World Cup in June. While most of the players on the 23-man roster are likely to be selected from European clubs, a delay in the start of the MLS season would have left the U.S.-based players with no matches to get sharp ahead of the start of national team training camp in mid-May.
"I think it's been a very productive few weeks. I think we're all mainly excited that we get to play soccer this year, and I think we're all very proud of what we've accomplished here," Donovan said. "This is not a one-day celebration. This is a start of many, many good things to come for many years for our players in our league."