Brad Stuver recently completed his seventh season in Major League Soccer. The New York City FC goalkeeper began his MLS career with Gregg Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC before a trade to City before the 2018 season.
Stuver is an active member of the Major League Soccer Players Association. He is one of 130 — or about 20 percent of the league’s players — on the bargaining committee negotiating with owners on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Stuver spoke to Pro Soccer USA the day after MLSPA executive director Bob Foose hosted a media conference call with three other members of the bargaining committee – Jeff Larentowicz (Atlanta United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union) and Diego Rubio (Colorado Rapids).
Pro Soccer USA: We learned from the conference call you have been in negotiations with the league for over a year. Is it normal to start talking that early?
Brad Stuver: “It was not standard for us to start negotiating so early. But I think this year we wanted to get the information out earlier. And we wanted more guys to buy in and understand what we’re trying to do.”
Pro Soccer USA: The owners have opened their books. Has that made it easier for the players to prioritize your desires?
Stuver: “It’s been good that the league has been so forthright with their numbers. I think it helps us negotiate a better deal and a fair deal so that both sides come out with something that will continue to make this league grow without tanking the numbers. Opening the books allows us to see what’s going on behind the teams and allows us to push our envelope a little bit to get the player rights where it should be without having to sacrifice anything.”
Pro Soccer USA: What is the most important thing on the table for the players?
Stuver: “There are a lot of different issues that are on the table, but the main thing is just putting fewer restrictions on the money available for players. Right now, you see all the three letter acronyms like TAM [targeted allocation money], GAM [general allocation money], and those can only be used on certain players. For us, we want to eliminate those and just make it one big pool of money. That way the money can be used however the teams want to use it.”
Pro Soccer USA: Bob Foose said targeted allocation money is “silly — it’s not necessary to try and tell our front offices how to sign players. They’re perfectly capable of doing that themselves and frankly, if they’re not, then they should suffer the consequences. Things like TAM need to go away.”
Stuver: “Yeah, and I think he’s just hitting on the point that the money was instituted by the league outside of negotiations with the PA. This is one of those things that the league unilaterally said we’re going to add this much amount of TAM into your salary budget, but they also put restrictions on it. There were a couple players that were trying to move and they were trying to negotiate a deal but they did not qualify for a TAM deal. It’s one of those things where all players want is to be able to negotiate what they think their market value is and TAM restricts that.”
Pro Soccer USA: Do you think this works against the clubs trying to build a team? Can you put yourself in the owners’ shoes?
Stuver: “The owners should see it as they can go out and buy the players that they want for the number that they want. Me personally, I would want the money just to be in one pool. And then I can spend it how I want. Bob was pretty harsh, but he’s right. If the GM and the clubs don’t make the best of that money then that’s on them. It shouldn’t be on the roster restrictions.”
Pro Soccer USA: You were able to negotiate a free-agency system in the last deal, although the thresholds don’t allow much movement. [Players must be 28 years old and have eight years of service to become free agents.] How much of a stumbling block could this be in negotiations?
Stuver: “The last time we went through the CBA, free agency was a philosophical issue that the league and all the owners said there’s no way that the MLS system can survive with free agency. So, we got over that philosophical hump. And now we’re just talking about numbers. Now we’re just trying to move the ball forward. We’re trying to make free agency more accessible to a bigger percentage of the player pool. Obviously it’s not going to happen overnight to have unrestricted free agency but this is one of those times where the player pool is very solidified on this issue.”
Pro Soccer USA: There was a perception that the union gave in, showed weakness and got cold feet when negotiating the last contract. However, the players were prepared to strike just ahead of the opening of the 2015 season. What do you remember about that? [Stuver was a player representative for the Columbus Crew at the time.]
Stuver: “I wouldn’t say we lost any power or got cold feet. I remember getting a call from Ethan Finley late that night and he said, ‘Hey, we’re going on strike. Don’t show up at training tomorrow.’ So, I think it’s one of those things where cold feet is not the right term. The vote was made. We were basically on strike. But then the decision came down that some things had changed in the negotiations [the next morning]. So, the time that we were on strike there was no sanctioned trainings or anything because it was so late at night.”
Pro Soccer USA: Let’s talk about travel and, specifically, charter flights. Alejandro Bedoya suggested that the Union’s failure to charter in a difficult travel period near the end of the year may have contributed to an injury that caused him to miss games. What is your personal feeling about charter versus commercial flying?
Stuver: “I think when we talk about charter flights a lot of people see us as complaining that we have to take commercial airlines and they think that we want to be treated special. But that’s not the case. Especially in New York, getting from our training facility to the airport in New York in the traffic is about an hour, hour and a half on a bus. You’re at the airport an hour early then you’re on the plane for however long. All of that just eats into the recovery time and the ability for you to train. And when that happens, play suffers on the field.”
Pro Soccer USA: Each team was permitted to charter up to four times in the regular season. Bedoya said that the Union did not charter at all. And Foose said that less than half of the charters permitted among the 24 teams were used.
Stuver: “Right now, using charters is not mandatory [for the clubs]. The only time it’s mandatory is in the postseason. So, if you’re an owner and you’re trying to save money, obviously you’re not going to spend the money on charter flights. But that’s not what’s in the best interest of the players. So, what we’re trying to negotiate is to have a mandatory number.”
Pro Soccer USA: Were you startled to hear that so few charters were utilized this season?
Stuver: “It is a little startling to me that more teams don’t use them, especially when you have to travel across the continent. I understand charters are expensive. But in the grand scheme of things, what’s more expensive? Losing Bedoya for four games and losing those four games or paying for the charter and having him healthy for those four games. Not saying those two are directly related, but it’s certainly one of the catalysts.”
Pro Soccer USA: Where do charter flights rank on the list of priorities for the MLSPA?
Stuver: “I think travel has been where the focus has been drawn in the media and it’s definitely been the most outspoken issue. And it is a very important issue — but it’s not the end all, be all right now.”
Pro Soccer USA: Your former head coach at NYCFC, Dome Torrent, seemed tormented at times about the difficulty of travel.
Stuver: “We would talk all the time about travel issues and he was pretty baffled that players just found it normal. He was very proud of the mentality of the players. He said that some players [overseas] couldn’t come here and do this type of travel because their mentality wouldn’t be able to handle it. He said the mentality of the player group is something special here.”
Pro Soccer USA: Do you think the travel along with the MLS schedule are things that impacted his departure from New York City?
Stuver: “I’m sure it was a little. It was a culture shock for Dome to come to the MLS after spending so much time in Europe. And at the end of the day he put a team on the field that won the Eastern Conference. For him, he decided to move on to take the next step in his career and I think all of us here at NYC can just say thank you for the past year and a half and wish him and his staff all the best in whatever comes next for them.”
Pro Soccer USA: NYCFC qualified for its first Concacaf Champions League. Those matches begin in mid-February. What would happen if the union called for a work stoppage?
Stuver: “It would be up to the team’s individual players, but to show solidarity, everything ceases if we go on strike, regardless of the competition.”
Pro Soccer USA: If there is no agreement at the deadline, but there is no strike or lockout, would the Concacaf games be played?
Stuver: “In 2015, we continued all the way up until the weekend of the first game because we were negotiating in good faith. It’s one of those things where it all depends on where negotiations are at. I guess we’ll have to wait to see where we’re at come Jan. 31 — whether we continue to play in good faith, or we just stop everything and wait for the best deal at hand.”
Pro Soccer USA: Are you optimistic that a deal can get done without a strike?
Stuver: “I’m always optimistic about any situation. The player pool is 100 percent bought in to getting the best deal available to help grow the game in this country. Whether that means we go on strike or not is to be determined.”