With less than two weeks remaining until the start of the MLS regular season, neither MLS nor the MLS Players Union are backing down from their respective positions as it relates to negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.
While the issue of player compensation -- both in terms of minimum salaries and the overall salary cap -- is still to be hashed out, free agency remains the main sticking point. MLSPU executive board member Dan Kennedy indicated that the union membership remains committed to gaining increases on all of these issues.
"I don't want to say [free agency] is priority No. 1 because there is so much that goes into a CBA," he said. "But certainly we feel as players that every other sports league in the world -- whether it's soccer or not -- enjoys a form of free agency, and we feel that we're at a level where we're playing in the same arena. We need those same rights. Certainly we feel free agency is up there with some [salary] budget issues being salary cap and minimum salary."
Kennedy added that the union has no intention of using free agency as a bargaining chip as a way to extract concessions in other areas, and that he sees salaries and free agency as being two separate issues. In other words, he doesn't anticipate a large increase in the salary budget as being enough for the union to give up on its quest for free agency.
"I don't think we can be bought on [free agency]," he said. "The players feel so strongly about it."
That will not stop the league from trying. A league source who asked not to be identified indicated that MLS and its owners remain staunchly opposed to any kind of internal free agency. In addition to controlling costs, there is a desire on the part of MLS to protect the single entity system upon which it is based. Instead, the source highlighted that MLS intends to offer the union significant increases in both the salary cap and minimum salaries.
"The league has been very clear, they're prepared to invest more money in the player pool," said the source. "We have every year, and we're prepared to do that now. This is very different than any other sports league. All of their CBAs were about cutting back compensation. Ours is about investing more."
That approach could be interpreted as a way of trying to split the union, especially given that free agency figures to impact just a fraction of the union membership every year. Kennedy insisted the union remains unified.
"When we poll the players, [free agency] continues to be on top of the list," he said. "At one point, it's going to affect everybody. It won't be year in and year out. In any sports league that's not the case. Players just want to have the right to choose where they go and ply their trade."
Both sides emphasized that there remains time to get a deal done. For that reason the league source said, "It's premature to talk about a work stoppage."
But there is a realization by both MLS and the MLSPU that it could happen, though the league source added that there has been "no talk" of using replacement players if there is a work stoppage.
"Nobody wants to have a strike," said the league source. "If the players choose to strike, they have that. We're not looking for that. We'll be prepared, and like everything else, we'll get through it. One thing we will not do is make an agreement that we think impairs our ability to grow the league, just to avoid a work stoppage. That we will not do. We've got too much into this now -- 20 years into it -- to just give up on something that we believe very strongly in."
Kennedy added: "We're prepared for it. It's crazy. At this point, I feel like with two weeks to go there's a lot that can be accomplished, but I'm prepared for a strike."
While a mediator has joined the discussions, most of those talks have been with only one side present. Both sides confirmed that there has only been one session so far where the mediator was present along with representatives from both sides. That is expected to change this week when meetings resume in New York.
The league source added that the presence of a mediator does provide a bit of hope, and that the negotiations are further along than they were five years ago at this stage. A union source indicated last week that items such as moving expenses and compensation for player appearances had been resolved.
"When we got to the mediator last time, there were literally no issues resolved. None," he said. "We've done a lot of that now."
This week should reveal if the momentum generated will aid in finding agreement on other issues as well.