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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

MLS Players' Union between a rock and a hard place

It's all quiet at MLS Headquarters... too quiet. It seems as if the cooler heads are losing their grip as the CBA negotiations between the league and its players are grinding to a halt. Where optimism at a deal existed only a couple of weeks ago, the only words coming from either side this week have been decidedly sour. It is unclear today whether the opposing sides are even in the same room and as more deadlines come and go, the toughest decision is left at the feet of the union.

MLS has taken the upper hand in the PR war by not locking out the players and seeming like the sensible party who wants to negotiate. The truth is closer to the fact that Don Garber and his wily group of owners know that the union doesn't hold a lot of chips in this game. The players are left with very little on the table to negotiate with and will have to decide soon if they are willing to hit the picket lines.

If the union does decide to continue to operate under the expired contract they at least take back some of the public sentiment. Fans will likely side with the players as most supporters realize that MLS players are definitely the poor cousin of worldwide FIFA players, but is PR enough? Sticking with the status quo could lead to the players eventually settling on a watered down agreement not much different than the current one. On the flipside of that however is the fact that at least they will still continue to get paid. For some of the players who are only making slightly better than minimum wage - that's a big issue.

Ironically, if the union chooses the strike option, it may end up creating a result as bad as or much worse than the current climate. Observers can't help but feeling the ownership is actually prepared for a work stoppage. It is definitely a fool's logic but who ever claimed the league was run by geniuses? The league might even welcome the opportunity for a player caused calamity which would give them the chance to fold a couple of money losing franchises - and blame the union at the same time. A long shot, and probably unlikely, thought process… but hardly impossible.

The more realistic fear for the union has the league filling its strike-hit squads with replacement players. Yes the quality would be lower but in a league with little face recognition, bar a few major stars, the current players could find themselves readily replaced. Further, in a worse case scenario, a long work stoppage could damage the league so badly that it doesn't survive in its current form. This result again means massive job losses for the union membership and a PR black eye along with it. A lot of mid-range players could be out of high-level professional football permanently.

Chances are likely that some form of negotiations will continue for the time being. The bright thinkers on both sides (we hope there are a few) will realize that this is a Cold War much like the real one. If either side pulls the big trigger then everyone gets burnt in the end. In that doomsday scenario however, the real losers would be North American supporters who have suffered through decades of ridiculous show "soccer" leagues (sorry original NASL sympathizers) only to have the closest league to the "real thing" face extinction at the hands of two stubborn teams.

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