Play Ball! New MLS CBA Agreed Upon In Principle — What Does it Mean for Future of the League?

Major League Soccer and the Players’ Union agreed in principle on a new collective bargaining agreement, allowing the season to start as planned. What does the new CBA mean for the league’s future?

You want to know what I’m excited about this weekend? The Major League Soccer season kicking off, that’s what! After months of doubt, the season is finally starting on time.

But it wasn’t always clear whether or not the season would start as planned. Until Wednesday, I was going to have to roll out of my bed at the crack of dawn to watch some FA Cup games in order to get my weekend soccer fix (I’ve got a feeling that Reading Vs Bradford is going to be good.)

Fortunately, Michael Parkhurst, Ethan Findley and the MLS Players Union hashed out a new collective bargaining agreement with the league IN PRINCIPLE allowing the matches to go forward as planned this opening weekend.

How did the agreement happen? That’s a good question, and one worth examining in greater detail.

Until Wednesday, a deal was dead in the water and the players had voted to strike if an agreement was not reached before Saturday. But then, all of a sudden something magical happened and an agreement formed. Now that the tornado is over and we have a new MLS CBA, let’s take a look at what went down this week.

The big point of this winter’s negotiations was the subject of Free Agency. MLS is a single entity, therefore the players’ contracts are held by the league. Because of this, the players have little power once they are in the league on where they end up after their contracts run out.

Here’s an example. Say Player A has his contract run out with FC Dallas, and wants to move his family to Seattle. Seattle would be okay with taking him on their roster, but Dallas still owns Player A’s rights. Thus Seattle has to pony up something to FC Dallas (draft picks, allocation money, players, etc.) to sign the person whom Dallas didn’t resign in the first place.

Now say Seattle doesn’t meet the demands for Player A, but Montreal does (even though Player A has little desire to go to Canada). Guess where Player A is going? Montreal. His only other option is to go to another league to have a choice on what team he is playing for. But even then, if he ever decides to come back to MLS, he must go to the team that controls his player rights (Unless he is a US national team player, where he will go through a convoluted allocation process. But that is another crazy story in itself).

So obviously the MLS Players Union hoped to get this fixed in the new CBA, along with a salary increase. However, the ownership did not want to even entertain the idea of any form of Free Agency. They felt that by allowing Free Agency, the single entity status of the league could come into question. They did put in an offer for Free Agency, but it was a metaphorical middle finger to the Players. Their idea of “Free Agency” is that any player over the age of 32 who has spent 10 years with one team could move freely to any team that they want. Guess how many players this encompasses? One. Brad Davis of the Houston Dynamo would be the only player who could get a choice on where he wants to ply his trade.

Needless to say, the Players Union quickly struck this idea down. The players’ stance was that they needed true 100% freedom. Obviously there was a lot of work to be done.

Come Tuesday night the Players Union had a vote to strike that passed. This signaled to the ownership group that they needed to start playing less hardball, otherwise they wouldn’t be making a dime this weekend (and we all know that money talks). After some constructive back and forth between the two camps, the final sticking point was the length of the CBA. Players wanted a short term deal, while owners wanted a whopping 8 years. It was finally agreed that a five-year length would be installed.

The details of the agreement are a little complex, but Brian Straus has in-depth analysis of the numbers. The CBA for Dummies version is this: Minimum salary has been increased to 60k, Players gain Free Agency after they have spent 8 years in the league and are at least 28 years old and there is a salary cap increase. Players and owners are not jumping up and down in super excitement over the deal, but they are satisfied with the compromises that were made.

Here are my thoughts on the matter: It took something like 90 years for baseball to get true free agency, so after 20 years with MLS, players should be happy with the progress made with this CBA. Not all the players are happy with the deal, but overall this was a win for the players. However, in five years I foresee another round of contentious negotiations — and hopefully more progress.