MLS CBA Negotiations Stall As Parties Carry Debate Into Public Sphere

Frustrated by a lack of progress behind closed doors, MLS and its players' union hit out at each other publicly as talks over a new CBA heat up.
After months of press silence, the primary figures in the Major League Soccer Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations lashed out at each other in the press this weekend.

Frustrated by a perceived lack of give by MLS, the MLS Players Union struck the first public blow Friday.

"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," MLSPU executive board member and Kansas City Wizard defender Jimmy Conrad told ESPN. "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."

The threat of a strike first cropped up in November from Seattle Sounders FC goaltender Kasey Keller. Then, both parties had several months to pound out a fresh CBA deal. However, those few months quickly dried up; the current agreement expired Jan. 31 and has been extended twice. The most recent extension will run out Feb. 25.

Further talks are scheduled for the upcoming week, but Conrad -- and the players who quickly followed him by issuing complaints on the record -- don't foresee any compromise coming quickly.

"If we did have a meeting I don't think our side would be doing too much talking," Conrad said. "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."

A day of silence from the league followed before MLS met the players in the public sphere.

"Our view had been that the most productive way to negotiate a CBA had been in the bargaining room across the table from the players' union and not to do it publicly," MLS president Mark Abbott told the Washington Post on Saturday. "Obviously, the players made a decision to take a different path. I am struck by a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations."

Abbott pointed out that despite financial losses the ownership groups for MLS clubs have committed to add $60 million in spending over the course of five years and he stressed that the league has made "significant" concessions in multiple key areas.

Where the two parties appear furthest apart is on the issue of free agency. Currently, individual clubs own the rights to a player two years after his contract expires. This can lead to sticky circumstances, such as the one currently enveloping Kevin Hartman.

The United States international goalkeeper couldn't agree to terms with Kansas City over a new deal, and the Wizards brought in Jimmy Nielsen to replace him. Now, instead of having his pick of clubs to choose from, any MLS club interested in his services must first trade for his rights from Kansas City.

"That is something the league is not prepared to do," Abbott said of free agency. "Clearly, no one is in favor of a work stoppage, but we spent years establishing the structure of the league to make it work and we did so against a background of repeated failures to launch professional soccer leagues in the United States.

"What we would never do is compromise those things that we think are necessary for the continued growth and prosperity of the league simply to avert a work stoppage. We have to think about this in the long term and we have to make sure the right system is in place."

Players are currently in preseason with clubs, though that could change when the CBA expires this Thursday. From then on out, both parties look set to play a high-stakes game of chicken into March. The 2010 season is scheduled to kick off on March 25 with the Philadelphia Union visiting Seattle.

Abbott added: "Would I say a deal was imminent the last couple days? No, I wouldn't, but I would also say we continue to make progress in all significant areas."

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