Major League Soccer fans just can’t get a break. First, there was the metaphorical slap to the face courtesy of LampardGate. Now none other than LA Galaxy/USMNT centerback Omar Gonzalez has publicly confirmed that MLS players are willing and prepared to go on strike when the league kicks off this coming March. What gives!?
Gonzalez’s statement, first published by Doug McIntyre with ESPN, comes less than two weeks before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLS and the MLS Players Union is due to expire. Both parties will meet over the coming days, possibly weeks or even months, to negotiate new terms.
“MLS has grown a lot in the four years since the last CBA was negotiated,” writes former FC Dallas player Bobby Warshaw in Deadspin. “Consequently, the players are looking for improvements, including an increased salary cap, higher minimum wages, improved travel accommodations, and enhanced moving expenses. The big issue—the deal-breaker—is free agency.”
MLS operates in a different universe also occupied by Australia’s football league where the league and teams operate as a single entity. As such, all player contracts are owned/controlled by MLS and not by individual teams, a process that requires a number of drafts, “designated players,” blind draws, allocations and a dozen other processes for player acquisition. It gives the league an enormous amount of control over the careers of players that the MLSPU has negotiated as far away from as possible since its creation in 2002, following the first antitrust suit against MLS in 1996 by eight players.
Many outlets predict that free agency will once again be a hot topic on the table. Free agency would provide MLS players more freedom and autonomy within a league that dictates their every move as well as resolve a number of issues the union wants to dispute including raising the minimum salary.
Consider the case of Hérculez Gómez. Gómez cut his teeth in MLS up until 2009 when he left Sporting Kansas City (then the Kansas City Wizards) and the USA to sign with Puebla F.C. in Mexico following a dispute with then-coach Peter Vermes. Gomez has expressed a desire to return to MLS, but continues to be hindered by one important limitation: the fact that Kansas City controls his rights to play in the league under the right of first refusal. Gómez’ career in the US is at the mercy of a team he hasn’t played with in seven years.
“It’s important to note that the players believe that free agency is a one-fix solution,” continues Warshaw. “When teams have to compete for players, teams won’t hold all of the power. They will need to start to care about the interests of the players…The market that once devoured players now appears to be their liberator.”
The MLSPU failed to win free agency in 2010 during the previous CBA negotiations. They did win a number of concessions that have improved the careers of MLS players and, arguably, the league itself. This time, it appears that the Players Union has firmly stamped its cleats on the ground in favor of free agency. Don’t be surprised to see Gonzalez at the front of the picket line come March 6th.