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MLS, players could go to battle over free agency with expired CBA prompting strike talk

RSL's Alvaro Saborio celebrates hitting a penalty kick as Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA play Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
RSL's Alvaro Saborio celebrates hitting a penalty kick as Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA play Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Real Salt Lake is itching to start the 2015 season, but a potential strike or lockout could mean fans are left waiting for Major League Soccer and its players to come to terms.

The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Union, which covered 2010 to 2014, expired at the end of January, and rumblings of a strike have grown steadily. Some of those rumblings have come from players in a public setting, including RSL's Chris Schuler and Alvaro Saborio to bigger names across the league such as Toronto FC's Michael Bradley and Chicago Fire's Mike Magee.

The 2010 agreement came nearly two months after the expiration of the previous deal, and the Players Union had voted in favor of a strike. That never came to fruition, with the two sides eking out an agreement at the last minute. Five years later, a late deal could be the only thing that gets the season going on time, with tensions as high as they've ever been.

The major concession the players want is unrestricted free agency, which would instantly depreciate most of the league's player acquisition mechanisms. MLS does not allow free agency, and some measures negotiated in the just-expired agreement allowed "equity"—primarily a re-entry draft so players would be available to other teams if their contracts expired and assurances that players couldn't be asked to take pay cuts. Player contracts had to meet certain guidelines, and increases were in order.

However, none of that was free agency and five years after the last negotiations, the sticking point remains. Players have said they will strike, and the league will want to avoid that especially with two new teams entering the fray: New York City FC and Orlando City SC.

New York City FC is owned by big-money player City Football Group, which also owns England's Manchester City FC, and is owned itself by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. RSL fans might remember NYCFC as the team that led Jason Kreis, RSL's title-winning coach, away from the club that helped establish him as a coach. Orlando's focus on Brazilian players, having signed 32-year-old Brazil legend Kaka, gives it a distinctive flair in MLS.

The addition of both teams marks a big step in the modern era of U.S. soccer, and MLS won't want to delay that. Still, it's holding firm to preventing free agency for players. The league owns the teams, and club operators have a financial stake in the league, so it's in the league's interest to control movement between teams.

Despite threats of a strike, the players might not force the issue. The demand for free agency could be a bargaining chip to allieviate other concerns and a concession at the midnight hour could see other gains on the players' side.

If there is a strike that delays the season, it could be the biggest problem for MLS since the days of contraction, when Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folded in 2001.

Matt Montgomery is the managing editor of RSL Soapbox. Contact him at montgomery.matt@gmail.com.