An effort to unionize U.S. soccer’s third division has gained support from more than half of the USL players, the threshold needed to begin the process of becoming formally recognized.

Organizers said this week that about 53 percent of the players have signed authorization cards. If the league, which is two levels below MLS, does not voluntarily recognize the union, the United Soccer League Players Association said it will petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election. A majority vote would result in certification. The process could take another year.

With a recognized union, the players would have the right to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

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“The organization effort represents the players’ desire to have a voice and a working relationship with the league,” said Ted Philipakos, a player agent and New York University professor who has assisted the players. “It should be emphasized that the proposed union gained majority support by promoting collaboration with the league rather than activism against it.”

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Arizona United defender Tyler Ruthven and Charlotte Independence midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo have taken leadership roles in the campaign.

The group said it is working with an arbitrator and mediator to verify majority support and is waiting for the Tampa-based league to decide whether it will participate in the process.

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MLS recognized its players’ union in 2003 and has negotiated three collective bargaining agreements, most recently on the eve of the 2015 season. The second-tier North American Soccer League does not have a union.

The USL fielded 24 teams this season, many in small- and medium-sized markets, and plans to expand to 28 next year. Three teams are based in Canada.

The league is independent of MLS but has strong ties to the first-division circuit: Eight USL teams are owned by MLS organizations and 12 others are affiliated with MLS, which requires all 20 of its clubs to have a third-tier outlet for prospects to play regularly. For three years, D.C. United has sent young players on loan to the USL’s Richmond Kickers.

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Players on loan to USL teams are part of the MLS labor force and are not be part of the USL movement. Most USL players, though, are under contract with USL clubs.

“Even if there are a lot of players in this league who have their sights set on moving on to MLS at some point,” DelPiccolo said earlier this year, “there’s an understanding that what we’re doing could make a big difference in the lives of not just today’s players but everyone that’s going to follow.”

Most USL players are paid during the spring-to-fall season only. There is no minimum salary. An above-average player is estimated to earn $2,000 a month, with some making $3,000 and more.

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