By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 7, 2020) US Soccer Players - The phrase "league of choice" has been a recurring favorite of Don Garber for at least half a decade. Few of the MLS commissioner's talking points have ever evoked more ambition along with easy jokes from skeptics. Global superiority has at times looked like a laughably distant proposition for a competition that fought for survival, and burned up a lot of money, for much of its existence.
So it was striking to hear the term pointedly cited by key figures in the MLS Players Association as they tentatively agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement this week. In broad terms, the deal appears to offer a range of player-friendly gains. Hefty hikes in required salary spending and bonuses. A marked ramp-up in eligibility for free agency. A mandated increase in the use of charter flights, wisely and effectively framed as a fitness and performance issue. On nearly every issue, the players can make the case that fans, ownership, and other stakeholders will also benefit.
"The league has talked about making this a league of choice. And we took that message, and we really wanted to embrace that," said Minnesota United winger Ethan Finlay in a conference call with reporters. "A league of choice is a league that is going to provide a form of free agency for all. And that was extremely important in that sense. DPs, TAM players, all the way down to guys on the minimum, the opportunity for them to go try to achieve at least market value on the open market. I think creating leverage for players has always been a challenge in this league, and this deal is monumental in changing that."
MLS's single-entity structure, its struggles for sustainability, and the prevailing dynamics of North American labor relations as a whole have conspired against the players union in the past. The MLSPA's approach drew scrutiny in the wake of the last CBA deal, perceived to offer modest gains compared to the league's growth in 2015.
Even as it introduced free agency, the tight strictures of the program limited it to a ridiculously small portion of a player pool which already finds its wages suppressed by the hurdles to moving abroad. It didn't help that MLS executives undermined the CBA almost immediately with the launch of Targeted Allocation Money. The intent was to inject quality into the middle of rosters, and the funds invested flowed mostly to new signings from overseas.
"It was crucial to us that we not go down the path of negotiating a comprehensive deal and then have a repeat of what happened the last time," said MLSPA executive director Bob Foose of TAM, seen by many as an end-run on the union. "A common theme for us is to try to have a system where as much as possible, all players are treated the same way and have the same opportunities. Given the structure and the barriers to moving internationally, the restrictions on movement in MLS have an outsized impact on domestic players, US and Canadian."
The union's leaders express a sense of vindication at fighting for freedom of movement.
"The biggest thing that we needed to accomplish was to break through a very strongly held philosophical issue on the owners' side, that they would never allow any form of free agency," said Foose. "That took a ton of capital and a lot of work."
Going forward, free agency will be open to more than twice as many players, with fewer complexities and with the desired effect of challenging the league's less ambitious clubs to catch up. The workforce has also brokered a say in overall spending and emphasized financial rewards for those contributing on the pitch.
The players have reminded owners that rising investment and competitiveness is necessary to reach their own stated goals. That long-term mentality seems to have fostered a surprisingly cooperative spirit.
"Instead of in the past where it seemed like the league was always pulled down to the bottom-performing club, what free agency does, I think it forces the clubs at the bottom to pull themselves up towards the top," said 15-year veteran Jeff Larentowicz, referring to "the homogenous nature of the way the clubs were run" early in his career. "I believe will make the clubs better. It'll make the lifestyle within the league and the product much better than it's ever been before."
Empowerment runs deeper than just wages.
"We expect to see a significant change in how players interact with their current teams when they re-sign deals and how they are able to negotiate those deals," said Foose. "I think we'll see a real change across the board on how teams are interacting with their players because it matters now."
Noted Finlay: "Players are going to have more leverage than ever, and we see that as a positive thing from competition side as well as the fairness side."
Base senior salary levels are on course to climb into six figures annually, even as MLS still lags behind other leagues relative to wages as a percentage of revenue. Clubs should enjoy more latitude to build their rosters as they see fit. For the first time, players extracted a modest form of revenue sharing should the next round of MLS television contracts reap a big increase in rights fees.
They've done all this without the federal mediators needed in the past or the specter of a work stoppage that would've been mutually destructive given MLS's unique position. As one source with knowledge of the situation noted to the Washington Post: "There is plenty of soccer out there. If we are screwing around over dollars here and there, people will watch [something else]."
Across the board, the PA says it's taking aim at the league's needless complexities – "starting to move away from such a heavy centralized system," said Foose – while admitting that the work remains incomplete.
The union made an impressive commitment to connecting with as many of their members as possible, including an 85-person bargaining committee, assiduous communication, and sustained outreach with Spanish-speaking players and those from abroad. That's helped undergird broad unity and get this deal to the finish line several weeks earlier than most expected.
"It was about fairness, competition, and continued investment. And we believe we made real successes on all three of those fronts," said Foose. "The solidarity demonstrated by the players throughout this process really drove the agreements, drove the process, and put us in a fantastic position."
More from Charles Boehm:
- Preview: USMNT vs Costa Rica
- Notes from the 2020 United Soccer Coaches Convention
- Alums McBride, Stewart begin to sketch out their vision for USMNT
- Process, perception, and US Soccer’s latest batch of hires
Logo courtesy of the MLSPA