Major League Soccer faces the prospect of an unprecedented lockout after a package of economic concessions approved by the MLS Players Association in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic received immediate pushback by the league.
MLS, which has been on hiatus since mid-March, is looking to stage a quarantined tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, this summer, as a means to return to competition amid the ongoing health crisis.
In the face of a sharp reduction in the number of games this season, MLS and its players’ union have also been involved in a series of negotiations about salary cuts in recent weeks in order to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.
The vast majority of MLS head office staff, including MLS commissioner Don Garber, have already taken enforced pay cuts due to the league’s shutdown.
The MLPSA announced on May 31 that it had agreed to a series of pay cuts, as well as reduced team and individual bonuses. It also agreed some modifications to the recently agreed Collective Bargaining Agreement, which includes a one-year extension through the 2025 season.
A statement read: “This evening, MLS Players voted to approve a package of economic concessions for the 2020 season, modifications to the recently agreed-upon CBA, including its extension by a year, and their agreement to participate in a summer tournament in Orlando. Included were salary reductions across the entire player pool, reduced team and individual bonuses, and additional concessions to existing and future terms of the CBA.
“While a difficult vote in incredibly challenging times, it was taken collectively to ensure that players can return to competition as soon as they are safely able to do so. The package has been formally submitted to the league for a decision by the owners,” the statement added.
According to ESPN, however, MLS has already informed the players’ union that it has already submitted its best and final offer and has given the players until 12pm ET on June 2 to accept otherwise the players will be locked out.
There are a few sticking points that need to be resolved. MLS is seeking a 8.75 per cent salary reduction, while the MLSPA has offered to accept a 7.5 per cent cut.
There is also a disagreement over a new force majeure clause that would allow either side to back out of a CBA in the case of a catastrophic event like a pandemic. ESPN reports: “MLS’s proposal gives it the right to invoke the clause if five teams suffer an attendance drop of 25 per cent or more from the previous year, while the MLSPA’s doesn’t have that stipulation.”
It is unclear if MLS is taking a tough bargaining stance with its players to force through a deal but a lockout in the league’s 25th season would be a PR disaster.
According to The Athletic, all MLS players will refuse to participate in “voluntary” training sessions that are scheduled in home markets across the league today (June 1).
In recent weeks, there have also been disagreements between MLS and the MLSPA over the length of the summer tournament in Orlando and, in turn, the time participants would spend away from their families.
A previous proposal involved MLS’s teams playing a minimum of five games in a group stage prior to a knockout stage. This meant players would have been away from home for eight to 10 weeks, which led to much discomfort among participants about the plan. Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya even described the proposal as “like being in a luxurious prison”.
According to ESPN, a new plan will involve players arrive in Orlando on or around June 24, and spend at most six weeks in Central Florida in a tournament that includes three group-stage matches, rather than five. It has also been reported that players can opt out for familial reasons, such as having pregnant wives.
MLS is eager to salvage its season, which was postponed after the second round of games after the onset of the coronavirus crisis. In addition, the MLS All-Star Game, Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup have been called off. There also remains much doubt as to whether the US Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League will be able to take place.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently announced that the state is open to all professional sports teams in the United States who want to resume action amid the coronavirus crisis. The National Basketball Association is also looking to resume its season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex this summer.