By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 18, 2015) US Soccer Players – Congratulations are due to Justin Mapp and Drew Moor, two MLS veterans and capped US internationals who entered Major League Soccer’s history books this week as the first players to utilize the league’s new (and long-sought) free-agency system. It’s a major milestone for MLS players’ rights, albeit one that passed quietly, thanks perhaps to the cartoonishly strict limitations imposed on the process by the league’s central office.
The likes of Mike Magee, Alan Gordon, Corey Ashe and two dozen or so others are able to follow Mapp and Moor’s path to the team of their choice in the weeks ahead. Their options are constrained by a curious rule limiting clubs to two free-agent signings per offseason. Sooner or later, that threatens to turn this process from an open market into a game of musical chairs.
MLS, of course, was built without free agency from the start. The league operated with the same mentality for two decades, which makes even this modest marker of progress worth noting.
Yet most any labor-rights advocate’s joy would end quickly with a look at the situation on the other side of the Atlantic. Across Europe, the 20th anniversary of the Jean-Marc Bosman ruling has prompted widespread media analysis of the sweeping effects of one of the most momentous sports law cases of our time.
Bosman, for those unfamiliar, is the Belgian midfielder who found himself frozen out by his club team RFC Liege when his contract expired in 1990. Under the old way of doing things, Liege held all the cards. They offered Bosman wages a quarter of what he’d been paid previously. When he tried to broker a move to French side Dunkerque, Liege insisted on a sky-high transfer fee that Dunkerque declined to pay – leaving the player in purgatory.
“I was held captive at my club,” Bosman, now 51, told The Guardian in one of his many interviews this month. “I was at the end of my contract with Liege. They offered me a new contract worth four times less than the previous one, and to sell me to Dunkirk they were demanding four times the price at which they had bought me. In other words, they thought that I had become four times better if I wanted to leave and four times worse if I wanted to sign again for them.”
So he took Liege, and eventually the entire incumbent UEFA system, to court. And he won, though the battle would bring his playing career to a premature close and adversely affect his life.
The European Court of Justice made the fateful ruling that soccer players – like most other workers in the EU – were free to choose their next employers at the conclusion of their contracts. This opened the door to a steady flow of talent moving “on a Bosman” between clubs and leagues, giving rise to the cash-fueled transfer market that undergirds the modern game as we know it.
Further developments would modify the system and – in the eyes of Bosman and many others – tilt the balance of power back towards the clubs, particularly the richest ones. The Belgian remains proud of his place in history, yet recognizes the complex legacy of his case – and his nod to North America’s more collectivist sporting structures should give pause to anyone here seeking to rouse a rabble in favor of “an unrestricted market.”
“The way the transfer system started then, it was about free movement. But there’s something wrong,” Bosman told Vice Sports. “I can’t understand, because in the USA the poorest club can pick up some players before the richest. Here, it is the richest that pick the players. There are 25 clubs in Europe and they are all doing business between themselves. In the Bosman ruling there was potential for asset redistribution, but unfortunately because of UEFA and FIFA the rich will have as much food as they want and the poor will starve.”
Such problems are a long way from threatening MLS. Yet the league’s innermost architects have always used them, along with the money-torching NASL of days gone by, as justification for one of the footballing world’s most draconian pay structures. Hatched from an eminently justifiable desire to corral costs and risk, its single-entity framework has worked exceedingly well at restraining the growth of player salaries even as improving business prospects brought the “Designated Player” era and a sustained, and lucrative, phase of expansion.
Ironically, MLS’s original employment structure created nearly the same quandary for long-serving players as the pre-Bosman ways in Europe. Play out the final year of your contract, and yes, you were free to sign overseas. However, your previous team back home retained your “MLS rights,” requiring others to pony up assets to bring you on board even if your old club no longer had any use for you. That caused simmering frustrations and some noteworthy exiles like Herculez Gomez, who moved south to craft a successful career in Mexico after stewing over the influence his former team in Kansas City wielded on his MLS destiny.
Until fairly recently, MLS youngsters could be paid as little as $13,000 a season. Thankfully, that number has now climbed up to $60,000 in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Yet, it took months of haggling and the very real threat of a strike action on the eve of the 2015 season opener for the MLS Players Union to scratch out the tiniest of footholds on the matter of free agency.
“Players 28 years of age and with eight years of MLS service who are out of contract, or have not had their option exercised, will have the ability to select their MLS club,” reads the league rulebook’s terse new section on free agency, “subject to certain restrictions.”
It’s not exactly the stuff of Jean-Marc Bosman’s dreams. As for that last part, even now the general public isn’t sure what unwelcome surprises league executives have lurking in there. But it’s a start, and in a league where the powers behind the curtain retain a fundamentally conservative bent towards just about everything, it’ll have to do.
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