New player distribution model may yield a few success stories and a hefty dose of the same old salary reductions.
When the MLS Players Union floated the idea during the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations earlier this year, it aspired to provide qualifying players with increased flexibility as they meandered through the ordeal of trying to reach a new deal with the league.
In that narrow sense, the re-entry process should be considered a victory before it even starts. The rules suggest the 35 participants will at least have an expanded set of choices to ponder as they weigh their professional futures.
Qualifying players* can enter the first round of the process to see if another club will sign them at their current contract option (or bona-fide offer) price or they can opt out to negotiate a deal with their current clubs. If a player goes unselected during the first round, he can again choose to enter the second round – presumably at a number lower than his bona-fide offer threshold or his contract option price, though the player doesn't have to agree to a new deal before entering the second round – of the process or he can again decide to negotiate with his old club. If he is selected in the second round, he will receive a genuine offer within seven days from his new club, and the proposal will allow his new club to retain his rights in the event no agreement is struck. If a player goes unselected in both rounds of the process, he becomes available to all clubs on a first-come, first-serve basis.
(* – Qualifying players fall into two categories: (1) those players who did not earn a bona-fide offer to extend an expired contract (and are at least 25 years old with four years of MLS experience, though those players who are 30 years old with eight years of experience require a higher offer to meet the bona-fide standard) or (2) players who had existing contract options declined (and are at least 23 years old with three years of MLS experience) by their previous clubs).
While the potential benefits for certain players lucky enough to come off the board in the first round are there for all to see, there is also ample reason to suggest the additional flexibility will arrive in tandem with the usual dose of pay cuts for the majority of the players involved.
Few players should come off the board in the first round of the process on Wednesday. Most of the 35 players involved in the first round possess expensive or prohibitive contract options (or, in three instances, mandated bona-fide qualifying offers) for 2011. While some of these players may appeal to other teams even at potentially inflated prices for club-specific reasons, the overall tally will likely rank in the low-to-mid single digits considering most players will be available at a lower salary budget number in the second round.
Price matters given the guaranteed contract structure imposed by the new CBA. Every player involved in the re-entry process – and every player over the age of 24 possessing at least three years of MLS experience – merits a fully guaranteed deal next season. This full-season guarantee is the reason why minimum salary players like Aaron Hohlbein and Luke Sassano mingle with the likes of Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Juan Pablo Angel in the current re-entry pool. Most clubs are reluctant to commit significant dollars – or, in some instances, any dollars at all – to players who could be replaced by a comparable option with a semi-guaranteed deal. Like the players, the clubs cherish flexibility.
The current environment encourages MLS to take a hard-line stance against re-entry process players when it commences salary negotiations between the first and second stages. This approach isn't necessarily different than in the past – the league office has played contractual hardball for 15 years and counting, while teams often employ similar tactics when holding exclusive rights – and it may exact a similar tariff on the participants. Many of the players involved are in line for steep pay reductions should they decide to continue their MLS careers in 2011.
MLS Players Union officials will no doubt hope the additional flexibility afforded by the process moves the final number to a higher point than it would have reached in the past. It is a theory that may bear some fruit, but one that also warrants a significant caveat.
Individual clubs enjoy a significant amount of autonomy to negotiate deals with potential players. This autonomy, however, is not absolute.
As explicitly stated in the re-entry process regulations, the league office holds the final say in all contract negotiations and must approve all offers supplied to players selected in the second stage of the process. In many instances, the severity of the cut imposed will come down to how hard the league wants to push. While the introduction of a specific club during the second round may push a proposed deal northward in some rare cases, the league office may also nudge the number below the contract potentially offered between the first and second stages or slide the number toward the league's assessment of a player's value.
Every contract negotiation occurs within a certain context. This particular setting – within a mechanism designed by the Players Union to inspire flexibility – will require league officials to employ a deft touch to maintain the league's core principles. As the most recent CBA negotiations underscored, MLS wants to secure the core of its single-entity structure by eliminating internal competition designed to create leverage for domestic players. The corresponding effect usually serves to decrease salaries for players with no external options.
Implementing the league's core tenets in this particular instance likely involves instituting a sliding scale of sorts for participants in the re-entry draft. The declined contract option or the proposed bona-fide offer at the start of the process should mark the highest point, and the offer should decrease as the process continues through to its conclusion. It is by no means concrete, but it should provide a guiding principle for the participants.
Although this approach appears somewhat simple to predict given the league's past history, its implementation remains uncertain. Rogue clubs could alter the landscape if they possess significant salary budget space, while a few players should benefit from the increased flexibility by seeing their contract options (or bona-fide offers) picked up in 2011.
For those few players and, presumably, the clubs that pick them, the re-entry process represents a boon. As the remainder of the process unfolds, it remains to be seen whether the new re-entry structure leads to additional fillips for other involved clubs and players or whether it merely reconstitutes business as usual for the benefit of a select group.
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 MLSsoccer.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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