By Kyle McCarthy
Silence only lasts so long in complex, high-profile negotiations. Inevitably, one party vents its frustration publicly.
The MLS Players Union reached its breaking point on Friday afternoon, sparking a weekend-long war of words between MLS and the Union that officially ended the public detente established over the past month and a half.
Representatives from both sides – MLS players opened the symphony on Friday, while MLS president Mark Abbott and Union executive director Bob Foose traded blows over the weekend – launched rhetorical salvos as they attempted to persuade the public to side with their cause. Facts weren't particularly important as the two sides corrected each other and staked out the moral high ground. A few details emerged, but neither side constructed a coherent narrative worthy of passing the sniff test.
In the middle of the bluster, one statement rang true and displayed the fundamental hurdle facing the Union as the negotiations enter the make-or-break stage this week ahead of Thursday's deadline.
“We've communicated that the league doesn't have an intention of commencing a lockout,” Abbott told the Associated Press on Saturday.
And why should MLS want to lockout its players? Maintaining the current CBA works just fine for the league right now because it limits expenditures and restricts player movement. Any subsequent CBA would no doubt include some concessions and increase expenditures significantly at a time when the overall bottom line still shows plenty of red ink. Developing MLS on the field will certainly require alterations and improvements to the current CBA structure over time, but those aspirations wouldn't face irreparable harm if the 2010 campaign started under the current pact.
In addition to the financial considerations, MLS has two particularly important milestones – opening a long-awaited stadium for New York and unveiling a much-anticipated expansion team in Philadelphia – it would like to feature during the latter stages of March. Why take the risk of dampening or erasing those events with an owner-fueled lockout?
Abbott's statement limits the Union's options and places the onus squarely on the players to decide how hard to push for concessions as negotiations resume today in Washington.
For a number of reasons, the status quo simply doesn't suit the Union. One glance at the comments and Tweets circulated by players around the league reveals the players' frustration at the semi-guaranteed and option-filled contracts, the meager salaries and the strictures in the current system. The Union simply can't tolerate the current system because players cannot generate any leverage in contract negotiations or move freely within the league when teams decline an option (FC Dallas' Dave van den Bergh) or the two parties can't agree on a new contract (Kansas City's Kevin Hartman).
A work stoppage represents the last game-changing option available to the Union, but the costs appear to outweigh the benefits. The best case scenario for the Union – an owner-induced lockout to sway public sentiment toward the Union – is off the table. Given the financial ramifications to its modestly-paid members and the impending World Cup, the Union would be hard pressed to commit to the lengthy work stoppage it would likely take for MLS to permit substantial reforms or reconsider its substantive approach. A shorter strike wouldn't really impact the negotiations substantively, though it could yield modest concessions and show the Union's resolve for future negotiations.
The options on the table don't provide the Union with the diversity of choices generally required to make substantive progress. As the talks resume today, the Union will have to determine whether it can navigate its way to a point where the players will reach some level of satisfaction over the next few days or whether the breaking point required for more drastic action beckons. Either way, the decision regarding the direction of these CBA discussions looms and the pressure rests on the Union to choose wisely.
While rehashing the back and forth isn't the object of this column, there are a few points worth making about the public wrangling over the weekend.
Read the fine print carefully. Abbott declared on Saturday that MLS offered $60 million in additional expenditures as part of a five-year deal. By Sunday afternoon, Foose showed why the eyepopping number isn't as impressive as it first appears because it constitutes a decrease in the level of year-to-year spending growth over the course of the expired CBA. This example, like many others in this process, probably has some truth on both sides, but it perfectly illustrates how no statement by either side can be taken at face value without thorough inspection.
Examine the message. The Union has framed the CBA talks as an issue of rights vs. economics. So why then did Foose spend so much time on Sunday trying to portray MLS as cheap when it offered a relatively respectable 4.8% increase on year-to-year spending? Many workers around the country would take that pay bump gladly, so it's hard to see why the Union wants to focus on it and limit its appeal to the rank and file. As for MLS, the league has shown a particularly dull touch in the past when trying to explain its cost-control measures (comparing developmental players to minor-league baseball players, anyone?) and can't seem to hit the right note about why it doesn't want to grant the players free agency. Abbott's confusing explanation about how the international market requires MLS to reject free agency didn't ring true and obscured the point. MLS should opt for the simple and effective message when next prompted: MLS can't afford to stomach the salary increases free agency would create because the league isn't making money.
Wonder what happens to the players on Friday. Most MLS teams are out of market right now. If there is a work stoppage on Friday, how do the players get back from their training camp destination and who incurs the travel cost?
Write in with your thoughts. Wednesday's Musings will feature a mailbag filled with e-mails and Tweets with your questions and thoughts on the CBA mess. Get in the game by sending along a note or hitting me with a reply on Twitter.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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