MLS players would make big mistake with strike, AEG chief says

Ten days from the start of Major League Soccer’s 15th season and the players are threatening to strike unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached by the March 25 season opener.

That, Tim Leiweke said in very plain language Monday, would be a huge mistake.

Leiweke is the chief executive of AEG, which owns the Galaxy and has long been a major supporter of soccer in the U.S. In his view, the players and their representatives in the MLS Players Union are being “disrespectful” of what MLS owners have put into the sport.

“Here’s our issue, and I’m speaking on behalf of AEG,” Leiweke said in an interview with The Times on Monday. “We have spent to the tune of $300 million on soccer. We have spent money on facilities. We at one point owned six of the 10 teams to keep the league alive.

“I don’t even know how to react when I hear the players now saying that we have treated them poorly and they’re going to strike. The fact is, the Galaxy isn’t going to make money this year. There are only a couple of [MLS] teams that will make money this year.

“It’s not like this league is a work of completion. It’s not like we have accomplished what we have to accomplish to be stable and to know we have a great future. It’s not like we have reached the potential of a soccer league in this country.

“So when I hear them talk about striking and shutting the league down, I’ve got to tell you, they’re going to lose us when they talk like that.

“We do this out of passion. If this were a business, we would have quit this 10 years ago.”

Does that mean AEG will pull the plug on soccer if MLS players go ahead with a strike they already have authorized? No, Leiweke replied, indicating that AEG owner Phil Anschutz remains as committed as ever to soccer.

“I would hope that the league has gotten to a point where it’s no longer solely dependent on AEG,” Leiweke said. “We have been fighting this battle for 10 years. Some of these [players] forget what we have put into it and they’re acting like the hard work and the money and the time and the energy and the passion that we’ve put into this, they all seem to forget about that.”

The previous five-year collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the players union expired Jan. 31, but talks continued and recently also involved federal mediators.

The players have focused their demands on greater freedom of movement within the league and guaranteed contracts, among other issues. There has been some movement toward an agreement, but not enough to ensure that the 2010 opening game between the Seattle Sounders and the Philadelphia Union will go ahead as scheduled next week.

Leiweke said he believes there has been a “disconnect” between the two sides and hopes that the talks will continue until an agreement is reached, without a strike.

“It would have been easy for us to quit over the last 10 years,” he said. “There were five different times we could have called it a day. But we didn’t. We fought through it.

“So for them to suddenly threaten that they’re going to shut it all down, I’m a little amazed at the lack of respect they show for the commitment that we all have made to get the league to where it’s at today.”

A strike is not inevitable, Leiweke said, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to try to bring about a resolution.

“It’s up to them,” Leiweke said of the players.

“We certainly are not going to lock them out because I don’t think the sport can handle that. I think they’re making a huge mistake going around talking about a strike.

“There’s a price to be paid there. A company like ours is going to look at this and say: ‘So this is what we fought 10 years to build?’

“This is ridiculous. We should stay at the table, fight through this, resolve this, and get on with it.”