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MLS labor agreement continues league’s evolution

Major League Soccer’s new collective-bargaining agreement — the second in the league’s 15-year history — is less revolutionary than evolutionary.

Unlike other professional sports leagues, MLS officials didn’t ask for concessions from players. Instead, they wanted a five-year deal that preserved the league’s single-entity status and offered no free agency to players.

The new deal the league and MLS Players Union announced last week gave the league all three things it wanted, but it also included key changes that will give players new rights, change the way MLS and its teams operate, and influence the future of MLSPU. Here’s a look at several changes and how they will affect the league and union.

Quality of life

Because MLS is a single-entity league, it will still book flights and hotel accommodations for all of its teams, but under the new CBA there is more language about what hotels are acceptable and how high per diems will be.

As recently as last year, MLS players traveling to Massachusetts to play the New England Revolution stayed in the Sheraton Braintree, a hotel that Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl described in “The Beckham Experiment” as being “bathed in car-exhaust fumes.” Players visiting New England now stay at the recently built Renaissance Boston Hotel at Patriot Place. Now, comparable hotels will be standard under the new CBA.

Players also will see their per diems rise from $50 a day to $65 plus $10 a day for incidental expenses.

The league also will pay moving expenses for players who are traded and put those players up in a hotel for 21 days. Previously, the league only paid $5,000 toward moving expenses and were obligated to pay for a player’s hotel for 14 days.

Coaching change

Life just got more difficult for MLS coaches and player personnel executives.

Under the previous CBA, the standard league contract with players typically were one-year agreements with multiple one-year options. That meant a team could sign a player for four years but drop him without affecting its salary cap after any season by declining to pick up his option.

The new deal changes that by increasing the number of MLS players with guaranteed contracts from approximately 25 percent to 57 percent, according to league and player estimates.

Teams can still sign players to deals with options, but under the new agreement, players whose options aren’t picked up by a team will enter a waiver draft where other teams can pick them up at their negotiated option price. That will put more pressure on teams to honor the options.

“It’s now important for teams to focus on the negative-options salaries and overall term of the contract, given the fact that there is less flexibility with options,” said Houston Dynamo COO Chris Canetti. “We need to be smart and more effective with signings because there’s less room for error.”

Green exhibitions

Under the previous CBA, MLS teams could schedule as many exhibition games as they wanted, ask players to play and not pay them a dime. If a player got hurt, the team might lose his contribution on the field but the player lost the opportunity to meet performance metrics in his contract.

In other words, the players played extra games with no upside — only consequence. But that’s going to change.

Under the new CBA, teams have to pay players for exhibition games. The first game is free; the second is $500 per player; the third is $750 per player; and the fourth is $1,000 per player. Games against elite international teams like FC Barcelona or Club America cost even more.

Fight another day

The biggest issue in the MLS labor negotiations was the players’ fight for free agency. Ultimately, players worked for limited freedom of movement and opted to fight for full free agency another day.

Taylor Twellman, the player representative for the New England Revolution, said that players knew in order to achieve free agency, they would have to strike. Though the players overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, he said they didn’t really want to strike because of the league’s economic condition and the general state of the economy.

“I wouldn’t say one side caved in,” Twellman said. “It was really an open discussion about what is best for soccer and how can we avoid a strike.”

Five years from now, Twellman said, MLS players may seek free agency again “if the league is cranking and the stadiums are filled.”

Future of the union

The future of the union’s leadership is not entirely clear given the fact that players failed to achieve the right they coveted most: free agency. However, a few player-side sources who did speak out last week voiced support for MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose, general counsel Jon Newman, and Eddie Pope, director of player relations, praising the work the trio did during the last two years to unify players.

Players felt prepared for every scenario that might arise during negotiations, Columbus Crew player representative William Hesmer said. For example, he said that the union had sent players an example of a letter it believed the league would send prior to a strike about cutting health insurance. As expected, the league sent a nearly identical copy of the union’s “example” letter two weeks ago.

“They had the foresight to see exactly how the negotiations would play out and it did play out that way,” Hesmer said. “Bob Foose, Jon Newman, Eddie Pope — they all did a tremendous job.”

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