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Mar 20, 2010

MLS, union can finally breathe easy

The Philadelphia Union can now head to Seattle for the first game of the MLS season, and seven other MLS teams can make similar arrangements, as the league and its players' association have settled on a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. In the process, what would have been the first work stoppage in the brief history of MLS -- one that would have been highly damaging to both the union and the league -- has been averted.

The union was set to go on strike in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the better to prevent Philadelphia from, as one union source said last week, "getting on the plane" ahead of its inaugural match. The weekend's other games, including the highly anticipated opening of Red Bull Arena on Saturday, can now go ahead as planned.

The news was met with understandable relief from both sides.

"We on the union side never questioned for a second the commitment of [MLS Commissioner Don Garber] and the league to get a deal done," said MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose. "I don't think they did on our side as well, and when you have those two factors in place, deals get done."

Garber added: "We were far apart, and the last couple of weeks we worked hard to not just get closer together but reach resolution. That's what happens in these kinds of situations."

With the threat of the strike looming, the two sides engaged in marathon meetings. Thursday's session lasted until 2 a.m. and the following meeting continued all the way until 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

But it appears as though a few factors all combined to generate significant momentum toward getting a deal completed. Federal mediator George H. Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service highlighted the presence of commissioner Garber as being instrumental, as it is highly unusual for the commissioner of a sports league to be involved in CBA negotiations. Both sides also hailed the assistance of Cohen and his deputy, Scot L. Beckenbaugh, with MLSPU executive board member Landon Donovan stating the deal, "candidly would not have gotten done" without them.

But the strike deadline imposed by the union also had a considerable effect on getting both sides to come to an agreement.

"Collective bargaining is actually fairly consistent, the way it works," Foose said. "One of the consistent themes is that the pressure of deadlines tends to produce results, and this negotiation was no different on that front."

Although the biggest winners from the agreement are the league's fans -- some of whom had already spent hundreds of dollars to attend what MLS is promoting as First Kick -- determining which side gained the most was somewhat difficult to determine. Both Garber and Foose would only reveal the broad outlines of the agreement due to the fact it had been signed just moments before the conference call took place.

But based on what was revealed, it appears that both sides achieved some important goals, with the players sounding especially pleased with what they gained.

"I think if you compare and contrast this deal with the previous one, there's a lot to be happy about," said Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad. "We made a lot of good progress in a lot of different areas."

In the area of guaranteed contracts, it looks as if the union got much of what it wanted. Foose indicated that based on age and years of service "the majority of players" will now have guaranteed deals. Multiple union sources who asked not to be identified added more detail, indicating that players who are aged 24 or higher, and who have three years or more of service in MLS will have guaranteed deals. In terms of unilateral contracts, the gains seemed minor, and the thresholds are slightly higher. Players 25 years of age or older with at least four years of MLS experience can have no more than two unilateral options written into their contract. The union was also able to extract some concessions in terms of wages although neither side would reveal how much.

But the league appears to have carried the day on the issue of free agency, which had been a considerable sticking point in the negotiations. Under the previous agreement, teams retained the rights of players whose contracts had expired, with the union contending such players should have the freedom to negotiate with other MLS teams. Under the terms of the new agreement, a re-entry draft will be held once a year in which out-of-contract players can be claimed by other teams interested in their services. Although on the surface this appears to satisfy some of the union's desire for more flexibility in this area, the league clearly met its goals.

"MLS was founded on the principle that our owners would not be competing against each other for a player's services," Garber said. "When we think of free agency, it is that concept of internal bidding. There will not be internal bidding for a player's services."

MLS also retained the right to have final say on approving all player contracts, thus preventing teams from having complete autonomy to negotiate their own deals.

These last two issues were considered to be underpinnings of the league's single-entity system, and from all appearances, that structure has been maintained. These were clearly concessions the union was willing to make.

"There isn't more choice of movement, but there is more flexibility," said MLSPU executive board member and Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad. "And we have more protections and more guarantees. These were big issues for a lot of guys."

Overall, both sides sounded genuinely pleased with the outcome. And the fact the season will take place as scheduled is just the first of many positive benefits.

"This isn't a one-day celebration," Donovan said. "This is the start of many, many good things to come for many years for our players and our league."

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 eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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