Major League Soccer players to go on strike?

Major League Soccer is now in the off-season, having just completed its fourteenth season.  However, the league and players seem to be gearing up for a big fight over the current league structure and salary cap.  Just recently, goalkeeper Kasey Keller on his blog hinted that players may be going on strike as of February 2nd.  The big issue is that the MLS currently allows teams a salary cap of $2.3 million for its entire roster, except for two players per team who can get a special exemption which doesn’t count towards the salary cap.  David Beckham is probably the best example of this exemption, as his salary is said to be about twice what that of the salary cap for an entire franchise for a year.

The main issue at hand, really revolves around the MLS status as a single-entity organization.  The league owns all player contracts, and there is no real sense of free-agency or even free transfers within the league.  While the Bosman ruling changed the face of player movement in European football, the MLS is still living under the guide of single-entity, keeping it from allowing free movement of players.  FIFA recently did an investigation of the MLS and said the league is compliant with its rules, however FIFAPro, the players organization has said the MLS is in violation of many FIFA statutes.  The MLS adopted the single-entity model for several reasons, mainly to keep player costs low, as that is what is believed to have been a major issue which lead to the fall of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  Additionally, under the single-entity model, the MLS is granted some leniency in regards to anti-trust violations, making it difficult to successful win court cases against the league in order to force any changes to the current model.  While players are allowed to move freely after their contract ends if they head to a league in another country, players can not move from one MLS franchise to another after their contract ends.  Rather, the league continues to own the contract and has the final say in deciding where a player will go.

The MLS players have also began to argue that there should be an increase in the salary cap because of the fans demand for more high profile players to come play in the league.  However, even if the MLS were to drastically increase the salary cap, I believe most teams would not see a great increase in talent.  Most teams would probably see some increases, but star players from overseas would probably demand salaries so high, they would continue to have to be placed under the special exemption category.

For more on the potential MLS players strike, as well as some quotes from Prof. Sauer of the SportsEconomist blog, click here.

Despite all this fighting, the league did give Landon Donovan a new four year contract, which is estimated to be worth $2 million a year.  This is the largest contract the MLS has ever given to an American player, and has included clauses to allow Donovan to go overseas both on loan in the off-season, or for good if a good enough offer is made for him after World Cup 2010.  Already Donovan has signed a 10 week loan deal with Everton of the Premier League, where he might actually get some playing time, especially with Everton in danger of falling into the relegation zone.  Donovan has gone overseas twice before, and each spell has been quite a disaster for him, getting almost no playing time.  The MLS seems to have ridden out the recession well enough, and has the money to keep its top players, yet they still want to keep the salary cap in place.

I think all signs point towards a potential work stoppage, something a soccer league in America really can’t afford.  If fans were so angry with work stoppages in hockey and baseball, I don’t know if the MLS really has the legitimacy and tradition that would help them overcome such a problem.

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