The players union clamored for free agency, guaranteed contracts, fairer wages and player rights in line with the rest of the world.
The league and its owners were adamant that they would not give up their single-entity structure, agree to anything that could affect the financial feasibility of the league or be bullied by the threat of a strike.
In the end, both sides agreed to meet somewhere in the middle. The players didn’t get everything they wanted, the owners made key concessions and, as a result, the Kansas City Wizards will open their season on time next weekend at home to D.C. United.
“We weren’t going to win everything,” defender Jimmy Conrad said in a phone interview a few hours after the deal was signed. “But we made some good progress in some good areas. I think it’s something to build off of.”
The specific details of the deal are still mostly a mystery with both sides focusing on the fact that an agreement had finally been reached. Although the players didn’t receive free agency or a change in MLS’ single-entity structure, they did walk away with guaranteed contracts for most players, a higher salaries and a newly concepted “re-entry draft” to help deal with out-of-contract players, similar to the situations faced this offseason by Kevin Hartman and Dave van den Bergh.
As it turns out the very real threat of a strike and the arrival of George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, was enough to bring both sides to the table in the mood to find enough common ground to avoid a potentially devastating player strike.
“First and foremost, it’s a great thing for the fans, it’s a great thing for the owners and, obviously, it’s a great thing for the players,” said forward Josh Wolff, who was also present at the negotiations. “We don’t want to have to strike or use that to broker a deal, but at the end of the day it was necessary for us as players to let the owners and league know that we were committed to changing the workplace.”
Losing invaluable face time for the league in a World Cup year would have been a crippling setback just as MLS was gaining traction in an economy that hasn’t been kind to the more established American leagues. It would have been especially costly in Kansas City, where a new $160 million stadium is currently in construction and the team is still looking to build a passionate fan base.
“Hopefully, it allows the league to focus on the game itself and not have to worry about disgruntled players or situations arising that take their focus away from growing the game, the number of fans, the stadiums and everything else,” Wolff said.
Conrad and Wolff emphasized that their focus was to help set the table for future generations of professional soccer players in the United States who may not understand the sacrifices older players made to get the league to the place it is today.
“Most of these younger guys have been treated OK up to this point,” Conrad said, “and we want that to stay the same. They didn’t know some of the stories that we have experienced, and they never had to experience themselves.”
Conrad said he hopes the agreement will allow MLS to keep players it may have lost before to equivalent leagues in Europe or Latin America—or other occupations altogether. The focus for the next five years for both sides will be to find a way to work together to improve the quality of play on the field as well as the quality of the product in other aspects of the sport, he said.
Wolff said the players understood the investment owners and league officials have made to grow MLS into a viable business model, but that it was important that both sides found a way to protect their own interests as well and the league as a whole.
“We would never do anything to jeopardize the league as players,” Wolff said. “We are all grateful for the opportunity for the investment, time and passion that every owner we have in our league has made. The guys are very excited that we will be starting on time.”