The Players Union Lost Because They Didn't Focus on Their Real Goal

Before I begin, I want to thank David Beckham for filling in for me here yesterday. Dave, buddy, your work shows real promise, but next time wait until the Percocets wear off, OK?

Like everyone else, I'm trying to withhold judgment on the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement until we get something more definitive than the dribs and drabs that are now leaking under door, the devil being in the details and all of that. But one thing is already crystal clear:

The players had a good shot at improving their lot and they blew it. Huge.

If the players re-elect Bob Foose, it will be clear that the league needs to vastly increase the scope of their drug testing program, since it will be prima facie evidence that they're all stoned out of their gourds.

It's not just because of the ham-fisted PR stuff which any college sophomore would have thought amateurish: the "training wheels" corollary (yes, that originated with him), the attempt to convince us that MLS was putting the US World Cup entry in jeopardy, the whole "MLS is at a crossroads and needs to make basic changes in the way they do business" meme, the big FIFPro appeal to FIFA, which got laughed out of Zurich, the "MLS is threatening to lock us out" scenario, on and on he staggered, from one PR embarrassment to another until in the end they were reduced to running around **********king like a flock of Macaws: "Basic rights, basic rights, awwwk, awwwk".

And of course who could forget the badly choreographed attempts to pressure the owners in the media, starting in late February when after months of silence they unilaterally decided to trot out a bunch of players - Conrad, Onstad, Garcia et. al. - to let us know that MLS was not only not budging, the weren't even bothering to listen, didn't give a damn, were a bunch of meanies, etc.

The ball was in the leagues' court for maybe 20 minutes before they shot back: "we will not lock the players out", thereby sending it back like a Federer forehand: Foose was forced to either put up or shut up and the silence was deafening.

Then, a couple weeks later, when he did respond with the strike threat, it took the owners about a nanosecond to reply, essentially: go ahead.

Still, in the end, none of that mattered. For all the good it did, the only ones who came out ahead in that game was guys like me, who they provided with tons of blogfodder. It didn't help the players one damned bit. If anything, it made them look weak.

It was particularly unfortunate because the only thing that really mattered was going on in Washington behind closed doors. All the keyboard pounders in the world jumping around like howler monkeys on peyote had exactly no discernible influence on the owners' negotiating stance. They should have saved themselves the trouble.

Meaningless (and inept) PR efforts aside then, where did Foose and the players go wrong?

Simple: they didn't ask for what they really wanted and ended up getting a lot less of it than they could have.

Because at the end of the day, what they wanted was more money. Everybody knew it.

All the "basic rights" issues that they claimed was their main purpose were of no Earthly value to anyone except as ways to increase their end. A lot of message board types seemed to believe otherwise, but nobody on the owners side of the table was fooled for a moment.

How much better it would have been for the players to say "Look, we get why it is things are the way they are and we're OK with that for now, but how about some decent wages for the guys who sell the tickets?"

They could have come up with a number, maybe 15-18% a year, settled for 10% and been way, way ahead.

An excellent ANDREA CANALES PIECE yesterday made the point:

Sources have indicated to that the owners were prepared to offer more financial incentives to work out a deal, but the players pressed instead for concessions on issues related to player movement.

The union thought they'd be tricksy and clever, and instead of asking for more money from a unprofitable league with declining attendance, which seems crude and greedy, they'd demand "basic rights". That way, they could appeal to the high moral ground, beat the owners with the club of righteousness and THEN get the money.

This seemed like a clever strategy, a kind of misdirection play.

They should have just gone for the money. The owners were apparently prepared to hand it over.

Because besides apparently leaving money on the table, they allowed the owners to prove their point about single entity at a time when, because of the economy and sagging attendance, it was easy to make.

In other words, by going at the owners where they thought they were weakest, ie. the "players rights" issues, they instead played straight into the owners' strength: the fact that there is currently no financial case for changing the system, and since MLS is a business, not a charity, there are no other grounds for argument.

What's even more fascinating though is that a large percentage of fans did exactly the same thing:

There are legions of MLS fans who have been ranting at us for years and years that the problem with MLS is that the cap is so very low. Double it, triple it, you hear numbers like $10 million bandied about. They tell us over and over that the most important thing is to increase the 'quality of play" by spending massively more on player salaries.

But when the CBA is being negotiated and the issues are actually on the table, what do they all do?

They fall in behind the players and chant "It's not about the money".

So OK, let's look at what we do apparently know about "the money", and see how that breaks down:

I will confess right here that I intended to do some actual research (I'll give you a moment to recover from the shock) because I wanted to know how many players at the bottom of the pay scale - former developmentals and minimum salary guys - were in for new cars this year.

Fortunately for me, just before I dove into the project I stumbled across THIS SUPERB POST by BigSoccer maven triplet1, which rescued me from the jaws of actual work.

In reference to the apparent 2010 jump in the cap to $2.55 million while the raises in the out years are smaller, he writes:

I was curious why they reportedly jumped it $230,000 per team this year, only to revert to about $125,000 after that for the balance of the deal. The reason, I suspect, is to boost everyone to the new minimum of $40,000, and resume a 5% growth rate after that.

By my count, from the union website 41 players made the developmental wage last year ($20,100, or some proration of that). They'll need about $800,000 league wide to get those players, or rather players occupying those slots, to $40,000 this season. In addition, aside from the four pool players, 72 players were making at or near the vet minimum ($34,0000, although a number made around $36,000). They'll need at around $350,000 to boost them to $40k, assuming they don't need some separation from the guys who were making 20k, and they might.

So, for the 15 teams playing last year, MLS will boost their budgets by as much as $3.45 million, but at least $1.15 million of that -- a third of the new dollars -- are going to the guys at the bottom of the pay scale. My guess is that's why the extra dollars are included in year one

So ignoring the low end in year one of the deal, each team will have an extra $125,000 a year to spend on players.

Somebody call Spain, England and Argentina: the party is ON, baby!

In any case, before the previously oppressed and exploited players at the lowest end of the pay scale begin rejoicing, they might consider this:

MLS used to have a number (40+ last year) of paid interns, whom they called "Developmental Players".

They weren't paid much but then not much was expected most of the time. Now, however, as $40,000 a year professionals, they have to carry their own weight.

Making that kind of money they aren't going to have the luxury of hanging around for a couple of years seeing if they can raise their game to MLS levels on the cheap. Not when there are perfectly serviceable 26-28 year old veterans in USSF 2 who would happily take that 40k and who can hit the pitch for you in Open Cup games and as emergency starters a whole heck of a lot more effectively than Johnny Frathouse can.

As much as anything else right now, MLS teams that win are teams that have depth. $40k will buy you depth.

Put another way, does paying a 22 year old college kid $40k instead of $20k make him a better player, or simply a more expensive player, and one who can be replaced by a better $40k player from any number of places?

In fact, I think that paying developmental players 40K helps the owners as much as anybody, since they aren't going to have to listen to the "some players live on $12,000 a year and can't even afford to eat" blather any more. It takes away one of the main brickbats the MLS bashers always wielded.

There's so much more to say, but until we know more for sure it's hard to make a serious case, but there's one more situation I'd like to address and that's the re-entry deal.

Let me give you four names:

Kevin Hartman, Steve Ralston, Dave van den Bergh and Jon Busch.

The first two, you may recall, were often mentioned by the players as examples of quality veterans who were chafing under the yoke of unfair MLS movement rules.

And yet, entirely under the auspices of the old rules, they both are now gainfully employed and, presumably, happy as clams.

van den Burgh, on the other hand, was waived by Dallas and while several other teams are very interested - Seattle being among them, and what a great fit that would be - he remains unemployed and, unless Dallas will relent, unemployable, his career in limbo.

At the joyous celebratory media conference on Saturday, someone asked specifically about van den Bergh and how his case would have been affected. Foose, almost unbelievably, said he didn't know. Garber said he'd have gone into the re-entry draft.

Unfortunately, since he was waived last Fall, his case doesn't count now. Did anyone in the room speak up on his behalf? Hell, Foose had obviously not even considered it.

Oh, one point I might mention: Ralston and Hartman, the guys the union members were all jumping up and down about, are Americans. van den Burgh is Dutch.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But try telling that to the 40% of MLS players who are foreign born.

Indeed, as Canales observes in the article linked above - it's terrific work, truly - if you discount Pat Onstad, a Canadian citizen and thus barely foreign at all in MLS terms (no that's not a snub, Canada is one of MLS' home nations) there were exactly NO foreign born players amongst the 30 or so assembled reps and other assorted union members in DC last week when the deal was struck.

None. Zip. Zero.

Another coincidence? Perhaps so.

But I wonder: if you were a foreign born MLS player, would you find it "coincidental" do you think?

Which brings us to Jon Busch.

The union can claim that they've just won a great victory in the battle for greater player freedom and movement all they want, but Buschie just became the poster boy for the hole in the donut here:

With barely days before the beginning of the season and most teams - except, at the moment, the Fire - set at the GK position, it would seem unlikely that he'll be on anyone's roster come opeing day. Indeed, he told reporters yesterday that his agent had called "every team in the league" and gotten no nibbles at all.

If nobody picks him up, well, luckily for him he can go through the re-entry draft.

Next December.

I would add that the main reason Busch was cut loose yesterday before the Fire is able to sign their reported foreign target, is because the cut down is Wednesday at 5 PM, at which time they'd be on the hook for his entire 2010 "guaranteed salary".

If all of this is progress, it seems ephemeral at best.