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MLS union and management preparing for collective bargaining negotiations

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The most compelling American soccer matchup on the agenda is two weeks away: MLS Cup in Seattle or Los Angeles. The most intriguing, important and likely contentious showdown, however, will occur over weeks and perhaps months in meeting rooms in Washington and New York: labor negotiations.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union will expire Jan. 31, about five weeks before the 2015 season launches.

Even without a new pact, a work stoppage is not expected to disrupt training camps, which will open Jan. 24-25. (For D.C. United and the Montreal Impact, preseason also will include the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.)

The likelihood of a quick, clean deal right after the holidays, though, is as remote as the Faroe Islands.

This is not a doom-and-gloom outlook. Rather, it’s the reflection of labor talks in all walks of life and the complexities of a growing sports league. In other words, negotiations are likely to go right up to the deadline (opening weekend), with both sides angling to make as many gains as possible before compromise is required.

MLS and the players’ union have hammered out two previous CBAs, five-year deals in 2005 and 2010. The last one required assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and was not settled until five days before the season was scheduled to commence.

As in any labor negotiation, the sides will address dozens of issues. Many will not require much time and effort. But an agreement hinges on two major topics: player movement and salaries.

Undoubtedly, the MLS Players Union will want true free agency, similar to other U.S. sports leagues.

The union did make gains in the last CBA with the implementation of the re-entry draft. No longer would clubs maintain MLS rights to a player out of contract. Rather than having the freedom to entertain offers from multiple clubs, however, veterans applied for the re-entry process and waited to see which team claimed their negotiating rights. If selected in the first stage, the player would receive a comparable salary to the past season. If chosen in the second stage, the sides would negotiate from scratch. By using a draft, MLS prevented bidding wars — a device in pro sports that lifts salaries, creates offseason buzz among fans and generates story lines in the media.

From the players’ point of view, the re-entry draft has served two purposes: protect veterans from low-ball tactics and get players under contract earlier in the offseason. Previously, some went without a paycheck and league insurance until February.

No doubt, free agency is a scary leap for MLS, whose single-entity system discourages competition for players. Ultimately, though, it would align MLS with other leagues, in soccer and otherwise. Clubs still would have to adhere to the salary cap, the guardrail against wild spending, but free agency would push larger salaries and, by extension, the need for a higher cap.

As in any labor negotiation, the other big issue is compensation. The union will need to address the enormous income inequity between fewer than 10 luxury players and the rank and file. While the average base salary is up to $195,000, the median is closer to $100,000. About four of every five players earn less than the league average. New York’s Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill earn a combined $7.25 million. The other 26 Red Bulls total $3 million total ($115,000 average).

The union has never had a problem with designated player salaries; it does have a problem with the enormous gap between DP earnings and the rest of the work force. To shrink the difference, the union will push for higher minimum salaries — currently $36,500 and $48,500, depending on roster designation — and higher pay standards for established non-DP players. Designated players do not necessarily squeeze a team’s salary cap space; regardless of full compensation, DPs count only $387,500 against the cap this year.

Increasing pay for MLS’s middle class would require a significant jump in the cap ceiling, a move that league investors may or may not be willing to enact. MLS does need, however, to understand it gets what it pays for. Higher salaries and greater spending flexibility will draw higher-caliber players from around the world and keep Americans at home.

MLS has made strides in another area: 70 percent of the 500-plus players have guaranteed contracts, with a higher rate among players on teams’ senior rosters. In early years, only a small number was guaranteed.

The league survived, and then prospered, by remaining firm in its fiscally conservative philosophy. But as MLS revenue and club valuation have grown, the players will want to see a larger share of the pie.

Both sides have been working behind the scenes ahead of serious negotiations this winter. About 10 percent of the work force (three per team) serves on the bargaining committee, and from what players say, meetings with union reps have gone well. The bargaining committee will meet in Las Vegas in the days after MLS Cup to address issues concerning the membership. Players active in the labor movement include, among others, Todd Dunivant, Bobby Boswell, and Jeff Larentowicz. The bargaining committee is losing two key figures to retirement: Landon Donovan and Logan Pause.

Meantime, MLS will have to coalesce an increasingly diverse group of investors in forging a strategy. The days of a few old-school benefactors detached from the sport itself, set in their ways and dictating policy are gone. The new breed, from all appearances, is more progressive and, in some cases, would like to see the league remove the financial shackles and grow MLS at a faster pace.

The CBA negotiations could very well become a three-way struggle: the players vs. the league vs. some investors.

One encouraging element in these negotiations is the fact that many of the same figures who negotiated the 2005 and 2010 deals will return to the bargaining table: Mark Abbott, MLS’s president and deputy commissioner, heads the management team, while Bob Foose is the executive director of the players’ union. Longtime commissioner Don Garber and executive vice president Todd Durbin serve the league. Union leadership includes retired players Eddie Pope and John Thorrington.

Relationships and trust are often the first test in negotiations. These guys know one another, and although they come at it from different perspectives, they want what is best for the league and American soccer as a whole. Whether they can strike a deal without delaying the start of MLS’s 20th season is another matter.