There's quite a bit going on with the Philadelphia Union these days. The Carlos Valdes saga, the loss of Amobi Okugo and Zac MacMath, the lack of off-season signings and the general unrest among the Union fan base. But there is a growing issue in MLS that could potentially bring all those conversations to a halt, if not put them on temporary hold.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set to expire Saturday, January 31st, and it appears that MLS and the MLS Players Union are very far apart on some key issues. The biggest of those issues being MLSPU's desire for free agency.
MLS has always operated under a tightly controlled, albeit murky set of rules and procedures that have dictated what team a player will end up on - the single-entity structure. The league believes that this is a way to allow for parity, control of salaries, and an overall attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the original NASL which folded in part due to ballooning salaries and over-expansion. But now, the MLSPU is pushing back against this structure and it could potentially threaten the upcoming season.
The 2010 Collective Bargaining Agreement
To understand where we are now, it is important to look at the previous CBA signed just before the Union kicked off their inaugural season in 2010. Don't worry, I'm not going to go over every single bit of the previous CBA because I'm not a labor attorney - and I also don't want to bore any readers to tears.
During the last CBA negotiation there was nearly a work stoppage. The Players Union had voted to strike if an agreement could not be reached by the start of the season, but a deal was hammered out two days before first kick. Some general highlights of changes that were made during this CBA were more guaranteed contracts, an increase in the salary cap, more player benefits, and a Re-Entry Draft for players who were out of contract and wished to sign elsewhere. While the Re-Entry Draft was considered an improvement for out of contract players, it still meant that the final destination of a player was out of their hands.
Issues in 2015
Obviously the league has grown quite a bit since the last CBA was signed. Since 2010, MLS has added five new teams (not counting the Union) and has two more planned for 2017. Attendance and TV viewership has risen, and USMNT players have returned from overseas to play in MLS. While the return of players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore has been viewed as a massive win for the league, it has also created it's own set of problems.
Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore each pulled in salaries that were in the millions of dollars, compared to the MLS average of just over $200,000. The gap between the richest players and the guy making the league minimum is staggering. To put it in perspective Kaka will be paid over $7 million in guaranteed compensation, while a guy like Richie Marquez makes just over $35,000. There are likely a few of you reading this who make significantly more than a professional soccer player. Now that's not to say a guy who played all season with Harrisburg City Islanders should be making the same salary as a former Balloon D'Or winner, but there is a significant gap nonetheless.
This is where free agency could potentially narrow the gap, while Marquez isn't going to cause any bidding wars among MLS franchises, a player like New England's Lee Ngyuen could. Ngyuen made just over $193,000 last year and had a great season that put him in the conversation for MVP. If he had become a free agent this off-season, it's very reasonable to think that some team in MLS would have given him a hefty salary to join their club. But MLS doesn't want a scenario like this, they want to control salary levels to avoid these types of bidding wars that are common in other sports.
What's at stake for both sides?
Both MLS and MLSPU have a lot to lose if there were to be a labor stoppage. As I mentioned before MLS and soccer in general are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. It finally seems like the long awaited day of soccer becoming widely accepted in this country are here, if not very close.
At first glance it appears that MLS has the most to lose if a CBA is not agreed upon before first kick. They have two expansion franchises joining the league in New York City FC and Orlando City SC and four big name players in David Villa, Kaka, Mix Diskerud and (eventually) Frank Lampard. You can bet the league does not want to delay rolling out those franchises or those players to the public. Not to mention MLS isn't as established as any of the four major sports in America. Those leagues can lose a season and recover because while the fans may be angry, they are very likely to come back. MLS doesn't have decades upon decades of memories and goodwill - they are in their infancy compared to other sports, and a lost season has the potential cause irreparable damage.
The players also stand to lose if they do chose to go on strike. No games means that the players won't get paid and while that may not be a huge issue for Clint Dempsey or David Villa, you can bet it would be an issue for those players receiving the league minimum. If the Player's Union wants to have an effective strike, it would be key that they stay strong and consistent across their ranks, and that can be tough to do when players making the league minimum aren't receiving their checks.
A conclusion is hard to predict
The tough thing about labor disagreements in sports is how unpredictable they can be. The NBA, NFL and NHL have all had some form of work stoppage within a few years of each other. One would think that the NBA would have seen the harm that the NFL lockout caused the league and its fan base, yet a few months later they suffered a similar fate.
Each league has its own nuances and its own issues that it brings to the table when negotiating a CBA. MLS is carving out its own niche in the American professional sports world and hoping to overtake one of the major four sports leagues eventually, and it appears they wish to go about it in a methodical and measured fashion. But when the league grows and makes more money, it's only natural that they players are going to want a bigger slice of the pie and the freedom of choosing a team that other sports allow.
I'm cautiously optimistic that a deal will be worked out without a loss in games, but never underestimate the unpredictability that labor negotiations can bring. There's a little over a month left until the season is supposed to start. In the mean time, let's keep arguing about Carlos Valdes, potential off-season acquisitions and hope we can watch the Union start their season on March 7th.