Roster development, compensation and charter travel will be at the heart of the MLS Players Association’s negotiations with Major League Soccer this winter for a new collective bargaining agreement, it was revealed during a conference call Thursday with MLSPA executive director Bob Foose and players Jeff Larentowicz, Alejandro Bedoya and Diego Rubio.
Players believe the upcoming negotiations are particularly crucial, as the next CBA will span five years and be in effect during what could be the most consequential period to-date in the league’s growth, namely MLS’ expansion to 29 clubs by 2022, the arrival of new broadcasting contracts in 2023 and 2024, and the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
The current collective bargaining agreement – which ran from the start of the 2015 season and expires at the end of January 2020 – created the first form of free agency in MLS, increased club salary budgets, upped minimum salaries for senior and reserve players, and capped the number of option years on contracts.
Foose and the players reiterated Thursday they will negotiate with MLS in good faith, but are also prepared to go on strike.
“Our guys are very well-educated on the issues, care about the sport, the league, and the PA,” Foose said. “The players are prepared to be at the bargaining table, but they’re also prepared if there’s no acceptable deal at the end of this process. We’ve been preparing for a potential work stoppage for two and a half years now, what it would like and how it would proceed.”
Foose previously told Pro Soccer USA international players have learned about their visa limitations and how to find a job if necessary. Players have also offered their homes to rookies who might need a place to stay, while all players have been instructed to actively save funds in case they need to wait out a work stoppage.
“If things don’t move more quickly, the odds of a stoppage skyrocket,” Foose added. “Hopefully it won’t be the case. … A [league] strategy to run out the clock is not going to be viewed favorably by the player pool or the [players’ association].”
Teams participating in the Concacaf Champions League, which kicks-off before the start of the MLS season, might not be able to participate if there’s a lockout, which would come in February, if at all. Concacaf would determine the consequences of the lockout, Foose also said.
Five years ago, MLS and its players didn’t reach a CBA agreement until March 4 – two days before the 2015 season started. Federal mediators and conciliation services also joined the negotiations at the end stages.
Timing could be an even greater factor this winter, as the 2020 MLS season is supposed to kick-off in late February, the league’s earliest-ever start.
Foose said the MLSPA and MLS have been in conversations for the past two years with an eye on the current CBA’s expiration.
On the issue of charter flights, some clubs have already invested in private aircrafts, though the existing CBA limits each club to four chartered legs per season, barring some travel difficulties like bad weather.
This is a particular issue of contention among players, many of whom used their personal social media accounts to vent frustrations about getting to and from road games this season.
“Charters aren’t about skipping the lines, better meals, or flying in fancy planes,” said Bedoya, one of the most outspoken players on social media. “I’m passionate about travel. For me it’s an important point. Charter flights are a huge player benefit.”
Bedoya then described a 10-day stretch last season in which the Philadelphia Union played three games and flew cross-country twice on a commercial airliner despite having charter legs available. Bedoya suffered a muscle injury during the third match, at Columbus Crew SC, which he attributed to the team’s difficult travel circumstances.
“It was my first muscle injury,” Bedoya said. “I believe if we had chartered…I could have prevented the injury.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the Associated Press on Nov. 6 negotiating charter travel was not contemplated five years ago during the last CBA negotiations. Foose, Larentowicz, Bedoya, and Rubio all refuted Garber’s claim.
“That wasn’t the case,” Foose said. “We talked about it five years ago. At the time the expectation was that there would be enough competition between franchises that the ability to charter would result in teams taking up whatever space they could to do it.
“We view charter flights no different than training facilities,” Foose added. “You can’t be one of the world’s best leagues or a league of choice if you don’t have the facilities. The same goes for travel.”
The MLSPA also wants free agency to be expanded. Current rules grant free agency to a small percentage of players – mainly those who are at least 28 years old with six years in the league.
“We’re well short of what’s adequate,” Foose said when asked about free agency. “There’s a long way to go and we want to see free agency opened up. We want to see a system of true, unrestricted free agency at a much earlier point in players’ careers.”
Foose said he wants “compensation for players that reflects how they actually play on the field” and for Targeted Allocation Money to be eliminated for good.
Another challenge is determining the amount of revenue the league will have – particularly with new broadcasting deals in 2023 and 2024 – and applying those projected figures to negotiations.
“We’re clear on our side that revenue has to be accounted for in this CBA,” said Foose, who repeatedly added he believes MLS is fully transparent with the MLSPA about its financial figures. “We won’t ignore that in negotiations. We want to see those deals negotiated into player compensation.”
Many of the issues the MLSPA will bring to the bargaining table this winter were discussed in 2015, though Larentowicz, in particular, took exception to the notion he and his peers caved in their negotiations at the time.
He and Foose expressed pride at the MLSPA’s unity five years ago when MLS representatives came to the bargaining table without a provision for some form of free agency.
“There are misperceptions of 2015,” Larentowicz said. “The players were given a proposal from the league on one of the last nights of negotiation and we voted it down…the free agency threshold was just not good, and we walked away from the deal. The unity we showed that spurred the league to come back to the table the following day, and the deal we struck down is completely different than the one we currently play under.
“We’re all excited to see what we can get out of this deal,” Larentowicz added. “The league is at a good point, but the players know the league is nothing without us. We’re ready to step up to whatever challenge comes up in the next few months.”