MLS and its players on Thursday reached a deal in principle on a five-year collective bargaining agreement, avoiding possible disruptions to the start of the league’s 25th season with three weeks to spare.
In a process that in the past has run right up to the season openers, the sides never seemed to hit any major roadblocks in agreeing to, among things, expand free agency, grow salaries and institute charter flights.
The players made notable gains, leaving a buoyant tone among MLS Players Association leadership, which had made considerable concessions five years ago.
“It was a CBA negotiation, so you never get absolutely everything you want to get,” said Bob Foose, the MLSPA’s executive director. “But what we did do is we got a deal that will significantly change what it means to be an MLS player and lead us into the future.”
The deal is subject to the approval of the MLS Board of Governors and the rank and file – widely considered a formality.
The previous CBA expired Friday and was extended by a week, a sign that the sides were nearing agreement.
In a written statement, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said: “We had constructive, positive discussions with the leadership of the MLSPA and the players’ bargaining committee during the negotiations over the last few months. I would like to thank them for their collaboration in concluding an agreement that will serve as the foundation for a new era of partnership with our players.”
Talks began in earnest last summer, a longer-than-usual timetable that both sides credited with better understanding one another and clearing the path to a deal without a work stoppage. In past years, the sides have had to enlist federal mediation.
Involved in negotiations for the third time in his career, Jeff Larentowicz, an Atlanta United player and member of the union’s executive board, said: “This is the first I’ve done from my couch, so to speak. The way we were able to complete this deal and get the things into the deal really speaks to how well prepared [the players] were as a group. We wanted to feel unified. Now more than ever, we were able to achieve that.”
There was also awareness on both sides that, unlike fans of other sports, soccer supporters in the United States have a number of options.
One person close to the league, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said: “Neither the owners nor the players could screw around. There is plenty of soccer out there. If we are screwing around over dollars here and there, people will watch” the Premier League or the Mexican league, among others available via TV and live streams.
Among the highlights of the deal:
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The threshold for free agency was lowered, to age 24 and five years of league service from age 28 and eight years’ service.
Previously, players who were out of contract but not eligible for free agency were subjected to a reentry draft or waiver draft. In many cases, their former team retained their MLS rights, even if they left the country.
In a compromise, though, the league will not allow free agents signing new contracts to increase their base earnings by more than 15%.
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The minimum salary for players on the senior roster will grow from $70,250 last year to $81,375 this year and $109,200 by 2024, the final year of the agreement.
For those on the reserve roster, typically younger players, the minimum will rise from $56,250 last year to $63,547 this season and $85,502 in 2024.
Foose said the league will spend just under $2 billion in player salaries and benefits over five years. He also said the bonus structure has improved significantly.
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The amount of money clubs will spend on rosters, excluding discretionary spending such as that on designated players, will grow to $11.6 million by 2024, from about $8.5 million last season.
That is not the salary cap, but a budget that includes money drawn from the league’s centralized fund.
Each team will continue to be able to sign three designated players, typically international stars or U.S. national team members who are paid millions. Only a percentage of their contract affects the salary cap. (This season, the DP hit on the $4.9 million salary cap is $612,500.)
Should a team acquire a third designated player, that salary will face restrictions, unless the player is age 23 or younger.
Essentially, the league is adding an incentive to sign younger players, who, if they rocket to stardom, will grow in value in the international market value and yield a large transfer fee.
The league and players’ association are also finalizing details of a plan that would allow teams to sign three players age 22 or younger to contracts that have a lessened impact on the salary cap.
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Clubs will be required to use charter flights on eight travel legs (four round trips) in 2020 and 16 legs by 2024. They will also be required to charter for the playoffs and international tournaments.
In the previous deal, clubs had the option of chartering on four legs, and some teams rarely scheduled any.
The MLSPA cited players’ health and recovery time in pushing for charters instead of commercial flights on all trips.
However, one MLS official close to the talks said, “The league recognized the role for an appropriate level of charter travel, but to charter for every game was not at this time prudent, given all the other spending priorities within the CBA we have.”
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For the first time, players will receive a cut of the league’s media rights agreements in 2023 and 2024. The current deals expire after the 2022 season.
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One area where the players fell short was in eliminating league funds, known as targeted allocation money, that are strictly earmarked to offset high-end contracts. The effect, the players argued, was less money available for the average player.
MLS did agree to divert TAM to a broader pool, known as general allocation money. By doing so, Foose said, the league will provide teams with greater freedom to construct rosters as they see fit.
But teams will still be able to use discretionary TAM on costlier players. The annual amount available, though, will decrease over the course of the CBA.
“We would have loved to have gotten rid of [targeted allocation money] entirely,” Foose said. “We will keep fighting that fight. We would like to see things easier to understand and certainly like to see all money out there for [all] players to be available.”