Major League Soccer and its players union reached agreement on a labor contract late Wednesday, clearing the way for the league's 20th season to begin on schedule Friday when the Galaxy plays host to the Chicago Fire at StubHub Center.
"The deal is done," Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake's union representative, told reporters as he left the federal mediator's offices in Washington after a fourth day of marathon negotiations with league executives.
Neither the league nor the union released details of the collective bargaining agreement, which still must be formally ratified by the players. But several media reports said the five-year deal, approved only 50 hours before the season was scheduled to begin, includes a raised salary cap, a higher minimum wage and restricted free agency, all items the union demanded to avoid a walkout.
Yet, while the union won on every major point, some players apparently believed it didn't push hard enough for more concessions, especially on free agency, something the league had steadfastly said it would not consider.
The Orlando Sentinel, citing "a source with direct knowledge of the deal," said free agency will be limited to players aged 28 or older with at least eight years of experience, figures that began to gain traction in the negotiations late Tuesday.
In addition, the new CBA will nearly double the league's bottom wage, from $36,500 to $60,000.
"This agreement will provide a platform for our players, ownership and management to work together to help build Major League Soccer into one of the great soccer leagues in the world," Commissioner Don Garber said in a written statement.
Garber was under intense pressure to get a deal done in time for this weekend's openers, especially Sunday's game in Florida, where star-studded expansion teams from New York and Orlando will meet in front of a sellout of 62,000 at the Citrus Bowl.
This weekend also marks the debut of the league's new $720-million broadcast deal with Fox, ESPN and Univision, all of whom would have been left scrambling to fill air time if the games had been canceled.
But the deal Garber agreed to make that happen is also drawing opposition from within his ranks, where some league partners continue to insist the league's single-entity business model makes any form of free agency impossible.
Under that setup, the league owns all 20 teams and the players on their rosters, turning the day-to-day business of the franchises, such as setting rosters and selling tickets, over to investor-operators. Allowing free agency, some of them argue, would leave the league bidding against itself for the services of players who want to change teams.
But if neither the league nor the union could claim total victory Wednesday, by reaching an agreement they may have saved the season.
"Nobody won," offered Fox Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, the former Galaxy general manager. "It was a tie. It's soccer."