The nuclear option

The player's ace in the pocket

When I started this newsletter, I really wanted to dedicate my Fridays to having a little fun – like, ranking the world’s greatest players of all-time who’s last name starts with Z (Pablo Zabaleta, clearly), or something.

However, MLS decided to threaten the very essence of our North American soccer watching existence with some spectacularly tone-deaf stuff.

Yep, MLS is threatening to lock out its players because, basically, the players won’t agree to forget about the deal that they agreed on exactly a year ago at this time. It’s madness, really.

Could you imagine if your boss came up to your desk and said “Hey – remember that dental plan you negotiated last year? Ya, about that. We are going to need to take that away. Oh, and you can’t change the conditions of your employment for 5 years. Also, we’re cutting your pay by 5%, but claiming that we aren’t.”

You’d likely tell your boss to shove it in that scenario and the players are right to do the same now.

It’s hard to understand what the owners’ endgame is here. They must have confidence that the players do not have the will (or ability) to last a long lock-out.  They could be right. The players have already shown a willingness to bend to the owners demand that the CBA be extended – they offered a year extension in their rejected counter offer last night – and the reality is that a lot of MLS players do not have a skin in the game for very long.

How can you convince a South American that expects to be moving on up in a year that it is in his best interest to walk a picket line with Sacha Kljestan right now?  For that matter, Kljestan might not view his needs as being the same as, say, Ayo Akinola.

All three players are at different stages of their career and all have different needs. It’s a difficult challenge of Bob Foose and the MLSPA to keep them all happy.

The owners understand this, which is why they must think that they can successfully win this power-play.

Here’s the thing though. The players hold an ace in their pocket that the owners should be very fearful of. That is, they work in a global market. This isn’t the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB where owners understand that the players cannot go elsewhere and get close the same money (or challenge) that they are getting in the league. So, they simply wait the players out – the owners, after all, are richer. They can afford no revenues a lot more readily than the players can afford no salaries.

A lack of alternative options is not the case with MLS players and, if the owners null the current CBA, every single MLS player would become a free agent. They are free to find work anywhere.

We’ve actually seen this in pro sports before. During the last NHL lock-out some players went to Europe and played in those leagues until the NHL and NHLPA came to a deal. Those players were always going to come back, but would/should MLS players, if they were to do the same?

To be clear, there is an agreement between the players and the league that any player that played elsewhere would return to the league once their was an agreement in place. However, there was also an agreement that the owners would honour the CBA they negotiated last year (twice), but here we are…

Whether that agreement to return to clubs would hold up if challenged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport is up for debate. What’s less debatable is that the players hold a nuclear option – they can decertify the union. If they were to do that any prior agreement they held with the owners would no longer be valid.

They’d be on frees. Every single player in the league. Not every player would find work, no, but a lot would. And the ones that did would be the biggest names in the league. MLS would effectively see its talent level drop to a level not seen in, at minimum, a decade.

And, good luck attracting top talent to replace the players that left the league because of the owner’s callous disregard for the league’s talent.  

Ka-boom. The deadline is Thursday.

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