Sex, Drugs and the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement

As science continues to find answers – or at least probable theories – to all the questions we have about the universe around us, mystery is slowly fading from our world.

Despite this, a few still perplex the human mind.  How did Tommy Wiseau fund the hysterically atrocious movie, “The Room”?  How come Kevin Trudeau wasn’t privy to the criminal contempt defenses ‘They’ don’t want you to know about?  Has anybody ever actually seen a physical document containing the Rules and Regulations of Major League Soccer?

If trying to imagine the inner workings of FIFA evokes images of mobsters luxuriating in spas and casinos by day and delivering sinister monologues to concrete-shoe’d snitches by night, MLS HQ brings to mind cloaked illuminati, wandering dark halls, murmuring Gregorian chants and seeking council with ancient spirits on which team Mix Diskerud should be allocated to.  Come to think of it, they almost literally sacrificed a goat last season.

There is a rules page on the MLS website (mlssoccer.com or to use its full name “Major League Soccer Soccer Dot Com”) and they give a rough idea of what the rules will usually be. Of course, always with the disclaimer that these are not all the rules, that they are subject to change and that the league may operate outside them where it sees a benefit.

The current roster rules are roughly something like this:

Maximum 30 man roster, $3.5m(ish) salary cap, minimum player salary of somewhere between $30k & $40k per year (yes, that’s right, year!) and max salary $385kish, limited number of foreigners (can’t be arsed to look and the slots can be traded, so it’s quite fluid), maximum of three Designated Players (players who can be paid any salary but only count as the $385kish max against the cap – basically a David Beckham).

All sounds straightforward if a bit restrictive.  There are some other special statuses for homegrown players, “Young DPs” and so on, but all relatively plain and simple.

Then Commissioner Don Garber will casually mention that Graham Zusi was able to stay at Sporting KC for more than the max salary because of the “retention fund”.  The world will ask back “What the hell is a retention fund… and why isn’t it mentioned in your rules?”.  Then there’s the practice of “buying down salaries” whereby a club can use “allocation money” to remove some of a player’s “cap hit”.

What’s allocation money, you ask?  Well it’s a mysterious pot of cash, the quantity of which is unspecified.  Clubs are then allocated similarly non-specific amounts based on various factors.  Being awful the previous season or needing bolster your squad for participation in the Champions League are two of the more mundane uses.  But allocation money seems to crop up all kinds of places.

If you’re already thinking “What a mind-bending, non-transparent clusterf…” then hold your expletive.  We haven’t even got into player allocations, draft allocations, the MLS Superdraft, the Re-Entry Draft, player rights…

Oh and the league is “Single Entity” so the players are (mostly) signed by the league and paid centrally.  Usually.  If you’re a designated player, the club (franchise) owner foots the bill for any of your salary over the league max.  So Phil Anschutz paid most of Beckham’s salary.  And made it back in ticket and shirt sales.

It would be confusing enough if the nuances were actually made public.  And this is just the scenario where the rules are followed as publicised!

When Clint Dempsey arrived not only did he not go through the allocation process (US National Team players or returning MLS players who don’t have their rights still owned by their previous MLS club, are offered to each club in turn, based on a predetermined ranking), it was revealed that MLS – not the Seattle Sounders – had paid his transfer fee.

When Jermaine Jones arrived, he not only skipped the allocation proces too, but had both Chicago and New England offering him a deal.  Because MLS actively prevents bidding wars between its clubs, Don Garber apparently performed the first ever MLS “blind draw” to determine which club he went to.

But fear not ladies and gentlemen for all that might be about to change – for all of the above is determined by a “Collective Bargaining Agreement” between MLS and the Players Union!  In three days, that puppy expires!

For the Europeans out there who may not know, CBAs are a common mechanism in US sports.  It’s basically the deal that determines the terms and conditions under which players work for their league.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale changes to the inner workings of the league.  However it does mean potential sticking points.  The big one for this set of negotiations, much like the 2010 renewal is that of free agency.

As I alluded to earlier, you can leave MLS but that doesn’t mean MLS leaves you.  What generally happens (of course, unless certain conditions are met when you leave) is the team you were playing for retains your “rights”.  That doesn’t mean a thing unless you return to MLS.  Should you come back however, unless a trade is worked out, you’ll go right back to the club that had those rights.

Thing is, this also occurs when your contract expires.  So if you decide to renew as an MLS player, you stay where you are.  You can’t play for Colorado and decide to negotiate with New York RB.  The kicker here is that your rights can be traded.  This is what happened with Robbie Rogers: he returned to MLS after multiple years away to find that Columbus had traded his rights to Chicago.  He didn’t want to be in Chicago so LA Galaxy had to trade Mike Magee with said club to obtain his rights.

As you can understand, the Players Union have tried to change this for years.  Last time a compromise was reached in the form of the reentry draft: basically, if you want to leave your current club, you get put into another draft process where another team can pick you.  This year they’re pushing for more and are threatening to go on strike because of it.  That and the minimum salary players receiving a wage they can live on (in fairness, the players at this end of the scale are usually rookies, some of which unfortunately will have no future in MLS).

Selfishly, I don’t want a strike to delay the start of the season.  Philosophically, I’m with the players.  MLS remains far too twitchy about the specter of “bidding wars” and “spiralling wages”.  There’s already a salary cap and limit on roster places.  There’s even a limit on individual salaries!  While nobody wants wages to outpace revenue as it reportedly did when the old NASL died in the eighties, I think those three mechanisms should mitigate that!

That’s not to say I want all these rules nixed. I am on record as being a fan of the parity in MLS. Others see those measures as “training wheels” and expect the league to one day allow the richer clubs to spend at will.  I would prefer steady increases to the salary cap and more incentives for players that remain in the league.  I certainly don’t want the rumoured 4th Designated Player.  Three provides a good balance between fielding bigger and/or better players while forcing the team to maintain a strong supporting cast.  Four tips the balance in my opinion, too much towards enabling clubs to “buy success”.

How likely is a strike?  Hard to say.  We saw all this posturing last time and the CBA got signed well ahead of schedule and it’s relatively early in the negotiations.  A strike may also dent the progress of MLS right when momentum seems to have it on an upward trajectory.  That doesn’t benefit the owner or the players, so I believe that when push comes to shove, both sides will do what it takes to avoid it.

Finally, MLS needs to be more transparent about their rules and more up-front when exceptional circumstances cause them to step outside them.  Landing David Beckham was a major event for the league and soccer in the US, so it stood to reason that they (seemingly) created a new rule to accommodate him, despite earning three times what the cap was at the time.

While the league, its operators and its owners keep up this shadowy smokescreen of partially revealed regs and the overt reservation of the right to change what they want, as and when they see fit, it provides ammo for those who characterise MLS as “amateurish” or “bush league”.

The sooner the paranoia and micromanagement takes a back seat, the sooner MLS can get the recognition it deserves for building a good league with exciting growth.

PS – Sex and Drugs?  I thought that would get more attention than “The MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement”

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