Major League Soccer and the league’s Players Association announced Wednesday the ratification of the collective bargaining agreement, which paves the way for the 2020 season to resume.
All 26 teams, including the Sounders, are expected to travel later this month for a tournament held at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside of Orlando, Florida. MLS commissioner Don Garber held a video conference call with media Wednesday and said details of the tournament are still being finalized, but the event will not be longer than 35 days and there will be $1 million in prize money and a trophy.
The event, which will not have fans in attendance, will not replace the 2020 regular season. MLS suspended play beginning March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The hope from players and the league is that conditions improve in the U.S. enough to hold a truncated season in the fall.
“No one was willing to commit or say yes or no on anything until we got multiple presentations from the league on the medical stuff,” said Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp, who is the Sounders’ union representative.
“It was checked vigorously by people on our side,” Shipp continued, noting players will be tested frequently and sequestered through the duration of their time in Florida. “We had our own team of doctors at the (players association), who were independently verifying everything that the league came up with. You give people peace of mind and all of that stuff and maybe it’s easier to accept the decision of going where players didn’t feel they were putting themselves in a greater risk than they are living their lives day-to-day here (in the Seattle-area).”
Voting, which spread across Tuesday and Wednesday, was conducted under contentious circumstances and the result wasn’t unanimous.
MLSPA reached terms with the league in February, however the CBA wasn’t ratified. When the pandemic forced the season to be suspended, players feel MLS owners capitalized on the situation to tweak the agreement while addressing how to safely return to play, according to multiple reports.
After players published their proposal late Sunday, the league responded by threatening a lockout if their terms weren’t accepted. The finalized deal pushes pay increases back a year from 2021 to 2022. Players will take a 5 percent cut in salary for the remainder of the 2020 season. Garber said MLS will sustain $1 billion in losses due to the pandemic.
The CBA now runs through 2025 with changes to payouts for revenue sharing and bonuses. While the tournament isn’t voluntary, there is language that allows exemptions on a case-by-case basis, such as those who are expecting the birth of a child.
“In February, everyone on both sides kind of felt good about this new era of partnership,” Shipp said. “We had the expectation coming into this that we would be approaching it with a similar kind of view. … Directly threatening players with ‘accept this or be locked out and lose your health insurance in the middle of a pandemic’ is a hard thing for players to forget about. It’s going to take a conscious effort on the league’s side and management of every club to re-earn players’ trust.”
Garber said: “The last couple of months have been emotional and they have been difficult. Labor negotiations are never easy. I’ve said that over the last 15 years, where we’ve gone through collective bargaining agreements and this one certainly was no easier. Frankly, it was more difficult. But fortunately we’ve been able to reach agreement and then collectively we’ll work to get back to play, deliver for our fans and deliver for our players the sport they love, and then we will work hard to build back some of the value, if you will, in the relationship that we worked hard to create collectively in December and January of last year.”
Adding to the stress from the players is the civil unrest since the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police. Multiple players, including Shipp, expressed their frustration via social media.
Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders’ general manager and president of soccer, said the organization held a listening session Tuesday where a diverse staff, including multiple Black men, expressed how they can be supported at this time.
News of a ratified CBA and return-to-play plan was a welcomed positive. The Sounders, who didn’t participate in voluntary trainings earlier this week in protest of MLS’s treatment, also received a positive from the city in the ability to pass the soccer ball between each other when training via social distancing. Those voluntary sessions will resume Thursday at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
“It’s what we’re calling ‘MLS training Phase 1.5 while still in Washington state Phase 1,’” Lagerwey said of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start Washington” reopening plan. “The way we go forward as a society is far more important than any kind of sporting thing that we may contemplate that’s specific to us.”
Teams played two matches each before the shut down. The Sounders final match was a draw against the Columbus Crew SC at CenturyLink Field on March 7.