Major League Soccer's current collective bargaining agreement expires on Jan. 31 and the new season starts on March 6, but MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said he's confident the new CBA will get done in time.
MLS and the MLS Players Union officials last met just prior to the Christmas holiday. The next meeting is scheduled to take place on or around Jan. 20.
"There will be enough meeting time to get a CBA done," Abbott said. "It's just a question of agreeing on the principal issues."
The dates for the meetings were hashed out back in October, and will increase in frequency as the start of the season approaches.
The MLSPU has staked out its two primary aims, those being increased compensation for players, and free agency. According to MLSPU executive board member Todd Dunivant, both issues came up for discussion in December, which marked the first opportunity for MLS to respond to the union's initial CBA proposal.
The meeting was attended by the MLSPU leadership as well as player representatives Dunivant of the L.A. Galaxy, Jack Jewsbury of the Portland Timbers, Andrew Jacobson of New York City FC, and Jacob Peterson of Sporting Kansas City. MLS was represented by Abbott, executive vice president for player relations and competition Todd Durbin, and others.
MLSPU executive director Bob Foose indicated that MLS has formally responded to about 75 percent of the issues contained in the union's initial proposal, but free agency was not among them. The negotiation is just beginning, although Dunivant noted some minor differences from the last time a CBA was hashed out five years ago.
"I'd say the tone between the two sides is better than last time," said Dunivant. "I think there's mutual respect from both sides. Both sides want to get to the same place; they want this league to get to the same place.
"There's not a lot of things checked off the list yet, there's still a lot of work to be done on both sides."
In terms of the salary issue, the MLSPU's primary aim is to raise salaries for those at the lower and middle areas of the pay scale. When the first round of 2014 salary figures was released by the MLSPU last April, the average salary was $207,831, but the median was $91,827.
Dunivant contends that a broad-based increase will also enable MLS clubs to compete with their Liga MX counterparts more consistently in international club competitions. According to the Mexican edition of Forbes, the average salary of a Liga MX player is nearly double that of MLS ($418,439 vs. $214,154).
"You look at [Liga MX] salaries versus ours, it's not even close, yet we're expected to go out and compete with those guys and win the CONCACAF Champions League," he said. "Our national team has proven that they're right on par, if not better, than Mexico. Now it's time for our clubs to do that. In order to do that, you have to be realistic and you have to know that you're competing on completely different playing fields when their salary cap is two or three times higher than ours."
MLS commissioner Don Garber highlighted last month how MLS is losing in excess of $100 million a year. Foose indicated that he understands the union "needs to be responsible" in terms of what it asks for and that any increase needs to be tied to an increase in revenue.
The salary issue is one where there can be considerable give and take however, and it seems likely some sort of middle ground will ultimately be reached. It is free agency that will ultimately determine whether there is a work stoppage or not.
At present both sides are sticking to their respective starting positions on the issue of player movement. Abbott contends the league needs cost certainty, a curious statement when one considers that the salary cap -- as flexible as it is sometimes with the shenanigans occasionally surrounding Designated Players -- would appear to do plenty to keep costs under control.
But Abbott also said that the advent of free agency would create a domino effect. Intra-league bidding over players would undermine the way in which MLS competes for players on the international market.
Abbott said that control should rest with the league.
"Our ability to best effectively compete in the international market -- and this was the whole foundation of the league -- is when the league functions as a single voice in that international market," said Abbott. "If the league itself is trying to decide how do we best compete against all of these international clubs, it would be more effective if the league is making those decisions, as opposed to our clubs competing with one another."
Generally speaking, the version of free agency being floated by the union is one whereby players who have played a certain number of games in MLS, or been in the league for a certain number of years would be able to choose the team they play for once their contract expires. The plan is to provide incentive to those players to remain in the league rather than head abroad.
"MLS is built on those players who have earned their way through the league," said Dunivant. "Free agency takes the onus off paying players who are not proven and who are not a sure commodity in this league. That's the system now, to squeeze the player that has done well in the league so that you can go and spend that money on new resources on say 10 players and hope three work out. We don't think that's a good model going forward."
Abbott disagreed, and insisted that the current single entity model has provided stability and growth as the league prepares to enter its 20th season.
"Think about all the investments that we've needed to make; in stadiums, infrastructure, players, player development," he said. ""Look at player development alone. We went from zero invested in player development a few years ago to over $30 million a year now. It's our structure, the stability it's allowed us to make those investments."
The extent of the modifications to that structure will take shape in the coming weeks.