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Another Major League Soccer season is about to end, and all would seem well in the world of commissioner Don Garber.
With David Beckham one win away from a championship and generating international headlines, the Seattle expansion franchise booming beyond expectations and prospective ownership groups falling over themselves to grab a slice of the MLS pie, the commissioner has plenty of reason to cheer.
However, Garber has one major issue to rectify if he is to avoid having his 14-year-old league's recent development stopped in its tracks.
Discussions over a new collective bargaining agreement, which will influence the salary levels and contract terms of every MLS player, have rumbled on for several months, yet negotiations are still a long way from being complete with time ticking toward the expiration of the current deal. In his annual State of the League address on Monday, Garber was even forced to use the dreaded "S" word – strike – following reports and rumors suggesting the union would consider a work stoppage if the matter is not soon resolved.
"Any discussion about a strike or work stoppage is totally premature," snapped Garber, who broke from recent tradition by delivering his address via conference call rather than in the host city of the MLS Cup final. "It's way too early for anyone to come to that conclusion."
Even so, problems are afoot. The MLS players' union believes it got short-changed in the previous five-year agreement and is seeking drastic increases and improvements for its members.
For a start, the union wants base salary restrictions that see some players make as little as $20,100 to be lifted. Furthermore, it wants contracts to have longer guarantees and for clubs to no longer retain a player's future rights after his deal runs out – which would allow an element of free agency.
As MLS is a private company owned by the investors of the respective teams, its finances are not a matter of public record. That makes it difficult for the union to make a realistic assessment about how high to shoot, although it has witnessed expansion from 10 teams in 2004 to 16 in 2010, with more on the way.
Jan. 31 is a crucial date, signaling the end of the existing arrangement. With preseason training camps opening around that time, the parties would prefer to have some finality by that point.
A strike or lockout would be disastrous, yet the gulf between what the players want and what the owners will give is thought to be sizeable.
"We are in regular meetings," Garber said. "We have met a half dozen times. The formal discussions began six months ago, and like all leagues and unions, they have ebbs and flows and at times they become heated.
"I expect that this will be a difficult agreement to finalize, but I am very confident that we will be able to reach a productive agreement. Both we and the union are committed to that."
This development comes at an awkward time and creates a tough spot for MLS, which has built itself into a position of stability by making smart and cautious financial decisions. The league remains desperate to avoid the mistakes made by the catastrophic North American Soccer League three decades ago, which crumbled under a heap of debt and mismanagement and left the U.S. without a national professional league until the MLS kicked off in 1996.
Talks have been private and they will continue that way. The union doesn't want to antagonize the league by speaking out too strongly, and the league won't talk because, well, it doesn't have to.
This is a story that will bubble angrily but won't get widespread attention unless there is no common ground and it gets to the point that no one wants – the point at which disaster would hit, a strike would loom and MLS would face the biggest test of its existence.