January 31st is looming large on the calendar for MLS fans. That is the date on which the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the Player's Association will expire setting the stage for a potential strike or lockout. The closer that date gets the more clear it has become that the two sides will not be able to reach an agreement on a new deal before the current one expires.
The 31st coming around does not mean that the league will suddenly lock out the players or the players will suddenly go on strike but it will set the stage for such actions to potentially occur. The two sides will negotiate a new deal while they continue to operate under the old one but if they continue to remain far apart of major issues as the season draws closer that nervy peace will likely crumble.
What we have seen so far from both sides is that very little information is going to be getting out. Those on the side of the league are not allowed to provide any information on how the negotiations are going with the threat of a six figure fine hanging over their heads if they do talk. They players have been a little more able to talk but when they do they have very much been sticking to the party line.
That party line for the players has been to set the stage for a potential strike. Every club around the league has a representative on the Player's Union and each and everyone of those reps has been saying the same thing. Some of the star players, including Michael Bradley, have also joined them in echoing the same ideas. The players want free agency and they are willing to go on strike to get it.
The proposal from that the league presented to the players was one that only touched on the key topic of free agency to say that it was not something they were going to offer. That is a problem for the players though who see the need for free agency in the league as the real key point of these negotiations.
Back in 2010, the last time the MLS CBA was renewed, we saw the players cave to the league and wind up coming away with very little as they could not afford any sort of lockout or strike. Things feel different this time around and even though many players still cannot a lengthy work stoppage they at least seem to be united in their demands this time and are clearly laying the ground work for a potential work stoppage.
The issue that the league seems to have with allowing any form of free agency is that it would present a challenge to the single entity model on which they currently operate. The league currently holds all contracts which ensures they can control salary costs and present a unified front in any negotiations to sign players from outside the league. The model, with its lack of free agency, ensure that clubs are never competing with each other for the same player and thus are not going to drive up the price.
The players feel that free agency would not be enough to crumble the current structure of the league and would actually be in the best interest of the individual clubs as well as the players. Free agency would take control away from the league though and that does not seem like something MLS HQ is willing to part with even if it might be better for the league in the long run if they take the training wheels off and let the clubs act as individuals in the international market and do what is in their own best interests.
If the real fear of the league were that allowing free agency would drive up the cost of players that seems to be an argument that just does not hold water. The players are not asking for the salary cap to be removed and as long as some form of cap remains in place clubs are only going to have so much money to spend to build their roster. If they wind up overpaying for one player it gives them less to spend on another one. It would all balance out in the end. The only players who's price it could inflate is Designated Players and as Toronto FC's offseason has shown the league really does not have an issue with clubs overpaying for those stars.
Free agency is going to be the real sticking point in these negotiations but it is not the only element of the negotiations that is causing concern. The Player's Union are also looking to get a raise on the minimum raise to ensure that the guys who are helping to build this league are getting fairly compensated for those efforts. With each multi-million dollar signing the league makes the disparity between the top and the bottom continues to grow and that is something the players want to chance.
The current league minimum leaves some players in a position where they can hardly afford the cost of living in certain MLS cities. For players on the likes of Toronto, LA, DC, or New York it can be tough to get by on roughly 40k a year which makes it hard for them to focus on doing their job as well as possible. The players also see it as the key way to move the league forward as it would improve the quality at the middle and the bottom of rosters. The league, or at least certain clubs, is clearly willing to spend at the top of the roster but the players want to see that spending spread out more evenly to take the league as a whole forward.
Those are the two major issues that will determine if a new CBA can be agreed before the new season is upon us. They are the two issues where both sides remains the furthest apart which is why they are the two topics that have come up in every single comment players have made to the press.
There will certainly be other elements of the CBA to hammer out in the coming weeks as the two sides continue to meet on a regular basis but it seems that the other elements of the deal are mainly ones that the two sides are able to come to some sort of compromise on. That is where elements like the 4th Designated Player slot, the rate at which the salary cap will rise, the number of roster spots, and other smaller details will be covered. That is not where the battle will be fought though.
With each passing week the chances of some form of work stoppage taking place have only increased. The players rhetoric is one that seems to be preparing fans and the media for the idea that a strike may take place. They appear to be positioning themselves in such a way as to try and retain as much public support as possible should a strike happen.
January 31st will be a key date in all of this with it being the day that the old CBA expires but it will not mark the clock striking midnight. There appears to be no hard deadline set yet for a new CBA in place but some key dates to keep in mind when considering a potential work stoppage are February 24th when MLS teams return to the field in CCL play and March 6th when the new MLS season is scheduled to kick off. The closer we get to those dates without a new CBA being in place the more likely it becomes that some sort of strike or lockout will have to occur.
As fans we may well wind up caught in the middle of all this. It might not matter what your opinion of free agency is or how you feel about MLS roster rules but it is clear that the players are already trying to rally your support to their side. At this point it does seem like they are doing a good job as their battle seems easy to support as many have become fatigue with the way the league operates in recent months.
This CBA is going to shape the future of the league and I for one would be willing to trade some form of missed games to make sure that future is on the most secure footing possible.