McCarthy's Musings: Tension Mounts As MLS CBA Deadline Approaches

MLS and the MLS Players Union have two days left to reach an agreement over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Kyle McCarthy updates the status of the talks with a few notes before answering reader questions from the mailbag.

By Kyle McCarthy

The wait for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement continues.

MLS and the Players Union met on Monday in Washington, but did not emerge from the talks with an agreement ahead of Thursday's deadline. The Union has started to prepare for a possible strike after the two sides did not meet on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported late Tuesday night. Discussions are expected to resume today.

As we wait for further news, here are a few brief notes (and one not-as-brief mailbag) to fill in the gaps as the deadline approaches.

A work stoppage is not inevitable
. Negotiations thrive on pressure, tension and timing. As the deadline approaches, the two sides could decide to stop posturing and start compromising. It happens quite frequently, in fact. The current rancor and the ample philosophical divide don't help matters in this particular instance, but the stakes are significant enough to cultivate a deal if both sides commit to hashing out an agreement over the next couple of days.

The Union faces a stark choice – make a deal or prepare for a lengthy strike. As I wrote on Monday, the pressure falls squarely on the Union at this point. In order to lay the foundation for future CBA negotiations, the players have to show resolve and strength over the next two days. If the Union decides to make a deal, it has to force MLS to concede some meaningful ground somewhere – even if just in one particularly crucial area – to claim incremental yet substantive progress toward its eventual aims. If the Union decides not to budge off its philosophical approach, then it has to strike for a considerable period of time to display its solidarity and fight for its values unless MLS quickly decides to move off its firm stance for some unforeseeable reason. An outcome between those two poles (especially an abbreviated strike) will leave the Union – which has made strides in this set of negotiations with its coherence and direction – weakened as it heads into the future.

Don't be surprised if MLS reconsiders its stance on a lockout.
MLS president Mark Abbott ruled out a lockout over the weekend, but league executives probably should reexamine that tactical move internally if the Union decides not to strike over the weekend  and doesn't agree to another extension. Abbott's statement heaped pressure on the Union and displayed MLS' negotiating acumen, but MLS doesn't want to operate from day-to-day with the threat of a player strike either. Even if MLS decides to reconsider its stance, it would still be a surprise to see the league reverse its course now. The positives of forcing the players to strike (and the benefits of exposing their weakness if they do not) and maintaining the current CBA for as long as possible outweigh the positives generated by a lockout.

As for the promised mailbag...
I plucked out a few questions and Tweets (@kylejmccarthy) to respond to a couple of lingering issues and show a fair sampling of the views on both sides.

If there is a work stoppage, then are MLS players allowed to take their FIFA pass and play for a club in a different league? Does it depend on lockout vs strike? Would MLS field teams of non-union players and have a season? Can Landon Donovan's loan be extended at Everton?
Evan Mitz, via e-mail

MLS players are under contract to the league. Therefore, they can't move to another club without the league's consent (and without a valid ITC from U.S. Soccer). MLS players have the option to play elsewhere during a work stoppage under the terms of the old CBA (Section 18.5), but any contract they sign must end once the work stoppage ends. The work stoppage does not invalidate the MLS contract – it merely ensures the players aren't getting paid.

(writer's note - The original version of this article stated MLS players were not permitted to play elsewhere during a strike or lockout. A helpful reader referred me to the CBA provision and set me on the straight and narrow.)

It is nearly impossible to envision MLS trying to fill its teams with replacement players to hold a season if the Union improbably remains on strike for an entire campaign. There aren't enough available, qualified and willing players in the United States to make it work. In addition to those problems, the quality of play would suffer considerably and impact attendances across the league.

As for Donovan, he'd probably have to extend his loan at Everton prior to the start of any work stoppage and SI.com indicated last week that he'd probably stay in England in case of a lockout or strike. Even with that well-sourced report in mind, both sides would appear to benefit tactically from Donovan's return to the States. The Union wouldn't want him to break ranks by reaping an additional loan fee for the league and could generate public sympathy if MLS sidelined America's most important player in a World Cup year. MLS probably can't consent to an extended loan either because it would want to end any strike as quickly as possible and keeping Donovan on the sidelines – even in the face of some nasty press – advances that goal. Then again, there could be a clause in Donovan's loan deal that automatically triggers an extension at a set price in the event of a MLS work stoppage, but it's hard to say without intricate knowledge of the contract between Everton and MLS. We'll have to wait and see how that scenario unfolds.

One related point: David Beckham's loan with AC Milan runs until the end of the season, so his status won't be impacted by a work stoppage.

Will sanctions be put on MLS & Columbus Crew if there is a lock out [or strike] & miss their Champions League match [on] March 9th?

@danielBosse, via Twitter

This question generated significant buzz on both sides of the border on Tuesday. The simple answer is that CONCACAF doesn't have specific guidelines for this situation and will have to decide how to proceed in the event a work stoppage impacts the game, CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer told the Associated Press. A forfeit and a fine would appear most likely if there is no postponement, though a suspension for the Crew and for MLS isn't out of the question (particularly if a lockout occurs). Keep in mind, however, that CONCACAF needs MLS to buy into the Champions League to facilitate its growth and can't afford to alienate the league with a substantial punishment.

Why does Luis Gil dictate where he plays, yet Kevin Hartman remain in purgatory? What determines a player's leverage when it comes to these matters? Is there a double standard between youngsters and veterans?
@robertjonas, via Twitter

It is a bit perverse to see a 16-year-old prospect choose his club while an established 35-year-old goalkeeper sits without a chance to select his next destination, isn't it? It isn't a double standard, but it mostly reflects the difference in external options. MLS can afford to play hardball with Hartman – and similar players like Dave van den Bergh – because he doesn't have any foreign options and can't have MLS teams bid against each other in the current system. Therefore, he can't generate the leverage Gil can. If MLS doesn't accommodate Gil, he's tromping off to Arsenal, Real Madrid or whatever other European club offers the proper compensation and tutelage. Needless to say, the players don't particularly see the equity in the status quo and want to find a way to give Hartman and other similarly affected veterans more of an opportunity to control their own destiny.

Clearly, MLS is an improvement over no first division league in the US and has improved somewhat since the beginning. It has developed young players – most of whom leave – and has developed a stadium infrastructure. It has, however, failed to develop excitement and committed passion amongst a majority of its fans. Why? A failure to attract world class players on a consistent basis. A failure to create meaningful regular season competition. …  MLS has got to get it straight. I am concerned by the lack of soccer consciousness in its leadership. Double the salary cap, guarantee contracts and create free agency and the MLS will all of a sudden generate the excitement we need. If what Mark Abbott says is true, this the best way to spend the “sixty million dollars” that the MLS has said it has offered.
David Borts, via e-mail

MLS understands it needs to improve the quality of play, but the league simply isn't willing to spend wildly to do it. World class players carry a price tag MLS can't afford given the current balance sheet, though the league has spent selectively when handed the opportunity to secure players who can help on and off the field. The modest increases in expenditures from year-to-year have worked so far – the battle in these negotiations is how much the league should adjust its trajectory northward as it continues to grow.

American soccer has tried free agency with the North American Soccer League. The Cosmos dominated and the league went bust. Having a few teams get the best players and dominate a league does not work because the fans of the other cities see that their teams do not have a chance to win. Thus, these fans stay home like the Scottish fans who are dominated by Rangers and Celtic. Free agency would let Seattle, L.A. and New York dominate.
Keith Watkins, via e-mail

Free agency would certainly increase costs at the league level for the middle-class player, but the salary budget structure currently in place wouldn't permit the ridiculous spending that killed the NASL and might not allow the big-market teams to tilt the market in their favor. Just ask the New York Knicks and New York Rangers whether a big-market team is guaranteed to win in a salary-capped league with free agency.

Not sure why free agency would be a bad thing. No one to pay your exorbitant asking price? Either take a cut or not play. … I know that the rookies and the lesser known players make considerably less –  some make half my yearly take home – and then get a job. Minor league baseball does it. Most Olympic athletes do it. Why not footballers? … I think the players should have the same rights that FIFA gives all players, that doesn’t mean that they are going to get the La Liga, Serie A or EPL price. … Soccer is never going to be as big as baseball or hockey, and never football, but if groomed and invested in, it can grow to be profitable.
Jocelyn, via e-mail

The theoretical problem with free agency from the MLS perspective is three-fold: it creates contractual leverage for players, it drives up the cost of the middle-class player and it undermines the single-entity structure. As for the FIFA rights issues, MLS has two major problems with the current worldwide system: it believes the current single-entity approach complies with the regulations and it knows adopting the practices required in the rest of the world would increase its costs considerably. Naturally, the Union falls on the opposite end of the spectrum and this deep-rooted philosophical divide is why we're here in the first place.

Players should accept minor [changes] to CBA but hold out for making it a one or two year agreement, revisit the major issues then.

@MrTuktoyaktuk, via Twitter

It makes sense for the Union to keep the agreement as short as possible because the collective bargaining process institutes changes incrementally. That being said, one or two years simply isn't long enough to allow MLS or the Union any sense of stability. When this agreement gets done, the two parties need a few years of labor peace before gearing up for the next battle.

Can anyone really get through to these knuckle heads? Do they have any concern at all for what they are doing to the existing fans, future fans, and fans in other parts of the world? Is a work stoppage inevitable? I blame the league!!! How can the players be faulted for wanting guaranteed contracts and free agency? Am I missing something? … A work stoppage of any kind is going to kill this league before it even gets out of diapers. A lot of the fans will simply turn their attention to European football. Will someone explain to me the genius behind the apparent desire of the league, owners, and players union to ignore potential new fans, and their seeming readiness to give existing fans a two (2) finger salute? … What can we, the forgotten fans, do to get some type of deal done that both the league and the union can live with?
(Ticked) off in L.A., via e-mail

Fans have every right to be angry. Few people expected the negotiations to reach this point without a deal considering the stakes in play and even fewer folks anticipated a looming work stoppage. Everyone gets hurt when labor strife and work stoppages occur, but the fans are certainly the most powerless of those groups. In the end, the fans can't force the two sides to sit down and hash out a deal that contradicts their individual interests. It's just a matter of hoping the two sides can find enough common ground before the games are impacted and some fans are disillusioned for good.

I'm 44 years old & go back to the Cosmos. A strike now would be a disaster. I feel for the players, but, realistically, 60% of the guys in MLS would not be able to make it elsewhere & they don't seem to realize it. The league may not be perfect but it's ours. Let's find a compromise.
Will Smith, via e-mail

We'll see whether both sides share these sentiments over the next two days.

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 kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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