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MLS All-Star Game

MLS Players Association hopes to avoid strike as it settles in for CBA negotiations

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan, center, blocks a shot by Atletico Madrid midfielder Rodrigo Riquelme (32) as Los Angeles FC defender Walker Zimmerman (25) comes in to assist during the first half of the MLS All-Star Game Wednesday in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On the morning of the league’s largest celebration, the Major League Soccer Players Association gathered to set its sights on next year’s renewal of its collective bargaining agreement.

The CBA is renegotiated every five years, and the current contract will expire at the end of January. At this time, Foose said that the Players Association doesn’t have a concrete deadline for an agreement. However, the typical goal is to complete negotiations before the first game of the season in late February.

As the league continues to expand and the U.S. prepares to host the 2026 World Cup, the players feel that this year’s CBA agreement will be its most important negotiation to date. If it comes down to it, the players have made clear that they are prepared to strike at the start of the season.

“A strike is never the goal and it’s not our goal,” said Bob Foose, the Executive Director of the Players Association. “If we each come to the table and work hard to find common ground I am very confident that we can reach an agreement that will benefit both the player pool and the league.”

In preparing for the negotiations, the players have also created concrete plans for a strike. International players have learned the limitations of their visas and how to get a job if necessary. Established players have offered their homes out to rookies who might need a place to stay. Players are actively saving funds and taking steps to ensure that, if a strike comes, everyone will be ready to wait it out.

“We understand what’s at stake,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Because of what’s at stake, it’s up to us as a group to make sure that if that’s ultimately what it’s going to come down to… that everyone’s on the same page. We hope that in good faith we’re both able to come to the table. As players, we continue to say we’re together, but that’s the truth of it.”

As the Players Association enters its CBA negotiations, Foose emphasized two major focuses — competitiveness and fairness. These two ideals extend to a variety of topics, from roster development and performance bonuses to chartered flights.

The system for building a roster is a major concern for the players association. The current centralized salary controls have often been criticized for slowing the growth of the league, and they remain an aspect of the league that the Players Association hopes to evolve.

The addition of a performance bonus is also a priority for Foose, who feels that MLS needs to continue to create new ways to encourage competition similarly to other soccer leagues around the world.

“Teams aren’t built on paper,” Foose said. “They’re people. Forcing a centralized approach does not lead to the best competition, it doesn’t lead to the highest performance, and we need to change thinking there.”

Although the association set a determined tone on Wednesday, the player representatives made clear that they both understand and appreciate the depth of investment that owners and the league have made in the sport so far. Now, however, the Players Association wants to continue to spur MLS forward, building on past investment to continue to lift the treatment of players to the same level as other leagues around the world.

A major key to that process, Foose said, will be holding teams responsible for not making investments in improvements such as training facilities.

“Clubs across the league haven’t been held as accountable as they should have been,” Foose said. “We have some clubs that just aren’t doing a good enough job. The teams that aren’t doing it well are gonna suffer. From our perspective, that’s the way it should be. Competition is at the heart of what these guys do, who they are. That same dynamic should be taking place at every level of the business. And frankly it’s not.”

In the five years since the last CBA, international players have become increasingly involved in the Players Association and CBA mediation. For internationals such as player representative Leandro Pirez, who played in Argentina until he joined Atlanta United in 2017, the Players Association is a new experience. 

In participating in the association, Pirez has been struck by the active communication regarding CBA negotiations and preparations for a possible strike.

“Personally, I am so proud of them,” Pirez said. “In Argentina, it is not like that. This is unbelievable. I’ve never been in a league like that. This is very important for the players because we know we are not alone.”

International experience has also strengthened Pirez’ resolve to help the league work toward universally chartering flights for its teams. In Argentina, the longest flight he ever took was three hours long and it was always a chartered trip. For players like Perez, the experience of sitting hours for an economy class flight across three time zones is a difficult and grueling adjustment.

All three players spoke to the importance of improving travel conditions for players to continue to improve their game. The issue of chartered flights has been a longstanding debate between the association and the league. This year, however, the players feel hopeful MLS is more serious about making a change. 

“These things are performance issues,” Foose said. “From our perspective, they’re not CBA issues and they shouldn’t be. There’s no other league that has a requirement that the teams fly charter. So it’s disappointing that we are where we are with as little progress having been made.”

Although the group made clear its intentions for creating change, Foose said that the league and owners have been increasingly receptive to conversations during the past two years.

One thing that sets MLS apart from other American leagues, Foose said, is that both MLS and SUM divulge all of their financial information to the players. This transparency allows the Players Association to set realistic expectations and plans for their bargaining, something that Foose believes will help the two organizations to create progress with the next CBA.

“What that means for us is that I can say with absolute sincerity, we don’t put anything on the table that we don’t think would make this a better league,” Foose said. “We are making proposals that we think are fair. We’re not fighting within a closed system.”

There won’t be a major start date for meetings surrounding the CBA; instead, the Players Association and the league have been in conversation throughout the past two years. As the contract expiration date nears, the association will continue to meet with both players and owners to construct a proper proposal.

For the Players Association, however, the tone for next year has already been set.

“We are ready to take the step that we need,” Pirez said. “This is our future. It’s the future of the players. We have to fight for that.”

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