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Columnist
Time running out for new MLS collective bargaining deal
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Columnist

MLS commissioner Don Garber, left, would like to focus his attention on the chase for the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the MLS Cup, but a new Collective Bargaining Agreement remains unsettled.

 

Associated Press/Major League Soccer

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Published: 2/25/2010 10:24 AM

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Trying to figure out Major League Soccer is as easy as understanding the whole health-care reform debate.

The single-entity league is notorious for its complex and unusual rules, and trying to figure out what's going on can be difficult even for players and team front-office people.

Anything of any significance, including routine player contracts, must be approved by the league office.

Likewise, trying to understand the negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is as fun as getting poked in the eye.

This much is easy to understand, however: MLS and the MLS Players Union must come to an agreement. Time is running out. Neither side can afford to allow a strike or lockout to happen. Each side must make some compromises.

While the league has made concrete gains since its inception in 1996 - expansion, new soccer-specific stadiums, favorable TV deals - it's far from big-time. A work stoppage could be devastating.

The negotiation deadline already has been extended twice past the last CBA's Jan. 31 expiration. The next deadline is Thursday.

Here's my hunch: the league has more room for compromise but seems determined to make a stand.

You can understand the owners' conservatism. They all remember what happened to the NASL, and they don't want to go that route. They know the economy is slowly recovering from a near disaster, and selling tickets and sponsorships is difficult in these times. Reports suggest only a few MLS teams have become profitable, though of course the league won't say for sure.

But the league also knows it can't demonize its players. In a league where so many players are paid less than public-school teachers and the salary cap for each team wouldn't buy a decent middle infielder, nobody is going to believe the players are just being greedy.

The players are realistic enough to know they can't try to break the bank.

And this negotiation probably - the people who know for sure aren't doing much talking, except, hopefully, to each other, though recent reports aren't positive - is only partially about salaries and benefits.

Take Kevin Hartman, for instance. A longtime starting goalkeeper, Hartman finds himself out of a job, unwanted by the Kansas City Wizards. But by MLS rules, Hartman can't go find a new MLS team for himself. The Wizards still hold his rights. Hartman is a goalkeeper in limbo.

Remember how the Fire had to trade Chad Barrett, a draft choice and MLS didn't say what else to Toronto for the right to sign Brian McBride in 2008? McBride never had played for Toronto, but somehow Toronto had the right to hold McBride and the Fire hostage.

Rules like these are counterproductive, and they could prove destructive. Too much happens behind closed doors with little or no explanation, confusing players, team staffers, fans and media alike.

MLS doesn't have to break the bank in these negotiations, but relinquishing a little control - to its own teams and to the players - wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Let the league continue to grow.