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Solidarity payments dispute sets the stage for CBA battle between MLS and the Players Association

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It’s not just about academies getting their share

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer wants money, however they can get it, wherever it comes from - they want it. For a long time, the league has not gotten it in the form of solidarity payments. Now that it’s becoming a selling league, it realizes that if Tyler Adams becomes the American Paul Pogba and ends up getting sold for Christian Pulisic money one day, the league could end up getting some of that money so they have now announced they will try to seek solidarity payments and training compensation.

This sounds good: the league can get more money while MLS teams might have an incentive to sell their players so that perhaps future USMNT-ers can play in good leagues abroad.

But it does not sound good to the MLS Players’ Association. The union released a statement expressing their objections to the league’s plans:

This is not the first time the MLSPA has asserted the interests of its members, being MLS players, in objecting to training compensation. For those unfamiliar, these payments are a portion of a transfer fee that ends up going to an academy or club that originally trained the transferred player as a youth. Most prominently in the US, people know about them because the academies that trained DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey sued the MLS Players Association for blocking the payments. That suit was dismissed, but the plan to accept solidarity money by MLS will be the biggest test of the issue for the union ahead of what could be a massive year for MLS players.

While this seems like it might just be a tiff between the union and league, the MLSPA statement goes much deeper than the solidarity payments. With the CBA set to expire after 2019, this is just one small conflict in much more significant sources of tension between MLS and the players.

Beyond training compensation

There is a lot to unpack about the training compensation issue. It isn’t hard to imagine that the MLSPA would one day allow these payments. For now the union is in a difficult position; on one hand, it has to represent its members who don’t want solidarity payments implemented, but on the other it is putting youth clubs at a disadvantage. While this seems like it would be counter intuitive - after all one day those youth players may become MLSPA members who may have missed out on getting better quality training paid for by a solidarity payment - this also may not entirely be about the solidarity payments since the other issues noted in the letter allude to the overall labor situation in the league.

This goes back to why the league exists - to make money for franchise owners. The MLSPA statement notes that it believes the league will use this as a measure to try and further control players. In addition to the items discussed in the letter, MLS controls player movement by not allowing free agency until players have been in the league for eight years and only then if they are 28 years old. Furthermore, if a player is unhappy with his team or gets a chance to transfer abroad, the owners have actually set up a system that reduces incentives for transfers since only in certain circumstances do teams keep all of the transfer fee a player is worth.

For owners, the system works. Players can’t ask for bigger contracts because teams would go over the salary cap (that they impose on themselves), but they also don’t have the ability to move between leagues as freely as players in the rest of the world because MLS clubs won’t get the full value for the players. Plus, once a player is signed with MLS, his club owns his rights in the league once he leaves - essentially forever - so if they want to come back, their former team would have to trade away their rights and until they do, they can’t sign with the club of their choice. Or the commissioner does a closed door coin flip that totally isn’t rigged.

Setting up a new CBA

So the labor situation is unfavorable for the players, MLS holds all of the cards and the MLSPA has few bargaining chips - one being solidarity payments. That may be a big chip to hold ahead of the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring at the end of the 2019 MLS season.

After that agreement was negotiated in 2015, players seemed to be fairly disillusioned with what they got. Brad Evans, a Players’ Association representative during the last round of CBA negotiations had this to say after the agreement was reached: “When we all look back at this CBA, it wasn’t what we wanted. I think we handcuffed ourselves into a situation. I think Don Garber can look back and say he got the fair end of the deal. Those guys obviously got the better end of the deal.” He’s right, the players came away with very little and have to play almost their entire careers before getting free agency, it was so bad several teams voted to reject the deal reportedly.

However, Evans did also say, “But come four-and-a-half more years, we’re going to have to put our foot down.” Here we are, four-and-a-half years later and it seems like the solidarity payment issue could be the first shot in a labor battle ahead of new negotiations. MLS players also have another chip to play - a work stoppage. As far as how MLS owners might be thinking of treating their employees should that happen, Robert Andrew Powell of Howler once quoted Sporting Kansas City co-owner Robb Heineman saying, “If labor ever tells us they’re going to strike, we’d be like, ‘Fine, we’ll replace each and every one of you.’”

Not only does Heineman’s quote show the hardline stance owners may take, but the league has also set up its labor system to divide the players. The designated players, the best-paid and usually the most popular players on their teams, are paid well by the league. They may not have an incentive to join a strike if it takes money out of their pockets and they probably won’t benefit in the long run since they already have what the non-DPs want - to be paid what they’re worth and have more freedom in transfers. In PR terms, having the players most visible to fans on your side would be key in a labor dispute, and the MLSPA might not have that if they want to go on strike.

For years the excuse for not paying players from the league has been “we don’t have money.” Tell that to Wayne Rooney, Michael Bradley, Josef Martinez, and Carlos Vela. The league clearly has money, it’s just choosing to spend it on designated players while claiming poverty when it comes to the salary cap.

To their credit, the owners have spent on those players and the league is getting better - a little bit, clearly not enough to compete with the best teams in North America playing in Monterrey. The gap between good and bad teams is also growing and is a little embarrassing. Last year the San Jose Earthquakes only managed to win four games while three teams let in 70 or more goals. Other leagues have promotion and relegation to ensure competitive equity while MLS has a salary cap to do that. However, parity in the league is also breaking down as some teams have actually spent money on good players while others are the New England Revolution.

In terms of the CBA, the players actually have a chance at not only improving their situation but perhaps getting the league to get better despite itself. Raising, or eliminating, the salary cap and allowing teams to add depth to their rosters would make the league better. 2020 will be a big year for MLS, but 2021 will be a bigger one as MLS searches for a new league-wide TV deal. The players would be making a mistake to not account for that and to demand the changes that they want while negotiating the CBA. Owners would also be potentially making a mistake as they try to attract new viewers and fans if a strike alienates the ones that they have worked so hard to win over in recent years. Either way with so much at stake for the players and potentially the owners, it’s clearly not only about the solidarity payments.