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Soccer newsletter: MLS is on its way back, but at what cost?

MLS and the players union ratified a return-to-play plan but it may have left some bad blood.
An agreement has cleared the way for MLS to become the first major professional sports league in the U.S. to return from the COVID-19 shutdown.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with the agreement between MLS and the players union that has cleared the way for MLS to become the first major professional sports league in the U.S. to return from the COVID-19 shutdown that halted play in early March.

But at what cost? The league’s heavy-handed approach to demanding concessions from the players by threatening a lockout left many bitter even as it moved them closer to resuming the season with a 26-team made-for-TV tournament in Orlando, Fla., next month.

“When things become uncertain or scary, you have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with,” Nashville SC defender Daniel Lovitz, one of the team’s three union representatives, said on a video chat with journalists a day after the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement was reached last week. “People’s character really comes out. What we were shown from the league frankly was not good enough.”

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The anger and distrust are real. When the league and its players agreed on a five-year CBA in February, it was the first time in 15 years a deal was done without the threat of an imminent strike hanging over the talks. Progress was made on salaries, travel, free agency and revenue sharing, among other things, and both sides hailed the cooperative tone of the process.

That CBA was never ratified, though, and with commissioner Don Garber saying the league faced a $1-billion revenue loss from the coronavirus pandemic, negotiations with the players over a way back to the field this summer took on a brutal bare-knuckle tone from the start. The league’s largest source of revenue is game-day sales and with no games having been played since early March — and given the likelihood fans won’t return to stadiums until late summer or early fall, if at all this season — the deficits are adding up.

In April the league unilaterally cut costs and reduced the salaries of league and club staff members, cuts Garber — who took a 25% pay reduction — said saved MLS hundreds of millions of dollars. The players made substantial financial concessions too, among them a 7.5% salary cut (5% annualized) and a reduction in individual and team bonuses — concessions that totaled more than $100 million. They also conceded on some terms of the hard-won CBA.

But hours after they forwarded their proposal to the league, MLS rejected it and gave the players less than two days to accept the owners’ final offer or be locked out, losing their health benefits, among other things.

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“It’s not something that I did without a lot of thought and without a lot of concern and a lot of understanding as to what impact that would have on our players and on the negotiations,” Garber said of the lockout threat. “But it was something as the leader of this league that I believed was necessary.”

And ultimately Garber got what he wanted: an agreement that allows the league to begin the final planning for this summer’s tournament in Orlando and, hopefully, an eventual resumption of the regular season. But to do that he sacrificed the goodwill and cooperation with the players that built up during the CBA talks. It may prove to be a bad trade.

“Going from feeling like we were on a good negotiation to the threat of lockout if you don’t accept our deal, those are some tactics I would view as bullying and really just power plays,” Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finley, the team’s union representative, said on a call with reporters. “I don’t think players take too kindly to that.”

“It was the first time in my tenure I have ever seen the word ‘lockout’ come across the table,” he added. “You understand it’s a word not very often used when we’re at the negotiating table, even when we were discussing CBAs in past years. It’s a very serious thing and … a great disappointment for the player pool.”

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Relations between the league and its players have been more fraught in MLS than perhaps any other league in the U.S. in recent years. While the historic friction between Major League Baseball owners and the powerful players union led to eight lockouts or strikes between 1972 and 1995, baseball’s revenues have grown so much since 1995 — from $1.4 billion in 1995 to an estimated $10.7 billion last season, according to Forbes — that it was in both sides’ interest to keep the spigot flowing. (That the underlying tension and distrust between labor and management was never really healed, only papered over with money, is one reason baseball is so divided this spring in its attempt to find a way back at a time of declining revenue brought on by the coronavirus crisis.)

The NFL and NBA had disastrous work stoppages in 2011, after which both agreed to revolutionary 10-year collective-bargaining agreements for the same reason baseball found labor peace: There was simply too much money at stake.

MLS has never had that luxury. The league, which turns 25 this season, has never turned a profit, and its broadcasting deal, the worst in U.S. professional sports, earns the league just $95 million a season. The Yankees were scheduled to spend more than that on just four players this summer.

As a result, both sides have traditionally dug in tight to fight over what would essentially be table scraps in some other leagues. Still, four months ago the players felt as if they were allies with management. The CBA talks had been respectful and productive, and the players felt as if they had a seat at the table.

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Then the chair was pulled out from under them.

“We came out of that CBA we agreed upon Feb. 6 and believed we really started a partnership with the league,” Finley said. “It had taken a long time, but we thought we were starting to be treated a little bit fair, and I think we’ve taken many steps back from that, just how things were handled from the league side to the player side.”

Added Lovitz: “There was no winner. This is a really terrible situation for all parties involved.”

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We’re going to Disney World!

In a conference call with reporters last week Garber declined to give many details of the Orlando tournament, and for good reason, since those details hadn’t been worked out. And while specifics are expected to be released this week, there are some things we do know:

— The league is expected to bring approximately 1,200 people — 45 players and staff members from each team — to central Florida, where they will be quarantined in a sprawling Disney resort. The tournament will last 35 days, the length of a World Cup tournament, with players arriving in late June to begin training before games start in early July.

— The 26-team tournament will begin with three group games with the top 16 teams advancing to a single-elimination knockout round. Results of the group-play matches will count in the regular-season standings. The final will be played in early August.

— The games will be played without fans on the 17 fields at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex, but the matches will be televised. And the league intends to use the broadcast to introduce several technological features. “Our fans and certainly our players, when they see how the games are produced, will be impressed with the technology and the thought that’s gone into trying to test a handful of new concepts,” Garber said. “We’ll have more cameras on this broadcast than would be on a typical ESPN, Fox or Univision game. There’ll be more access to audio in these broadcasts then would be a in typical game.”

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— Garber said MLS will award a trophy to the winner and the tournament will have a $1-million prize purse. In addition, the Athletic reported the winner will also receive an automatic berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

— MLS will test everyone for COVID-19 before they enter the protective bubble and continue regular testing during their stay in Orlando. What happens if a player tests positive while in quarantine is one of the questions expected to be answered later this week. Some players with preexisting medical conditions or family issues will be able to opt out. The wife of LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP, is pregnant with the couple’s second child so Vela may skip the tournament and stay in Southern California, although the team said no decision has been made. The wife of Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández is also pregnant with her second child, but the team said Hernández expects to play in Orlando.

MLS had little choice but to bring its teams to one place to resume its season. Its 26 teams are spread across 17 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, all of which are operating under different rules when it comes to COVID-19. And while Florida has been the most aggressive state in recruiting sports organizations — UFC held three events there last month and the NBA is planning on finishing its season in Orlando beginning next month — there is some danger in coming to Florida.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida is rising, meaning there is more spread, although Orange County, where Orlando is located, is doing better than much of the rest of the state.

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The voice of experience

The German Bundesliga was the first major soccer league to put together a plan to return to the field, and Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro said the experience brought several lessons from which MLS could benefit.

“You can only go back to sports with physical contact if you really do tests at least twice a week,” said Carro, whose team has played five league games in empty stadiums since the league resumed play in mid-May. “We always have to do tests one day before the match, sometimes even three times a week. It’s absolutely key to have the capacity and the logistics in order to do the tests for all the players one day before the game.

“Second is the whole capability operationally. We have to have our medical and hygiene doctor [and] he has a lot of work to do so you have to have the operational capacity to organize all the logistics. There’s a lot of rules that you have to follow and therefore you have to have the operational capacity to do it.

“Third, you need the unity of the teams. You have to have a unanimous or a majority decision that we really, really want to go back to play. If there’s no unity in that, it’s very difficult.”

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MLS is in charge of those first two items, and its go-slow approach has already seen three teams — Atlanta United, New England and Sporting Kansas City — receive clearance to resume full-team training. The Galaxy say they have been cleared to begin small-group training sessions and hope to advance full-team training this week in preparation, while LAFC is hoping to start small-group sessions soon.

“The plans that we’re working on now are addressing those issues,” Garber said, speaking of both the health and safety issues surrounding the Orlando tournament and what he hopes is an eventual return to play in each team’s home market. “What is our medical protocol going to be? Our testing protocol? What are we going to do to ensure that we have the right sanitary programs in place and spacing conditions and operational conditions. The task is monumental.”

The third item on Carro’s checklist may be a bit slower in coming.

“I have been in contact with a lot of players from a lot of different teams in a lot of different markets during this whole process, and I can tell you that there are groups of guys that are not excited about going to Orlando,” Lovitz, the Nashville defender, said. “That’s just the fact.”

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The league’s heavy-handed negotiating tactics may temper that enthusiasm even further. The players, after all, are the ones going into quarantine and absorbing all the health risks while the owners will all be going to their families each night.

Carro said it’s too early to declare the Bundesliga’s return from COVID-19 a success, but he’s encouraged by the progress and believes the protocols the league established offer a blueprint for others, such as MLS, to follow.

“We are the guinea pigs. We are the first ones,” he said. “We had to do all of this to be sure the risks are minimal. We are being watched by many, many people and we have to be careful to do everything correct.

“We are happy that we are motivating other countries to follow.”

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Following the leader

Speaking of leagues that are following the Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga is scheduled to resume play Thursday with Sevilla playing host to Real Betis (BeIN Sports, 1 p.m. PT). League-leading Barcelona will play its first match since March 7 on Saturday, visiting Mallorca (BeIN Sports, 1 p.m. PT) while second-place Real Madrid welcomes Eibar on Sunday (BeIN Sports, 10:30 a.m. PT).

That will be the start of a league-wide sprint to the finish in which 99 games will be played on 32 consecutive days to complete the schedule by July 19.

For Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann, the three-month break was the longest of his career — which was both good and bad.

“I have been able to rest being at home, not touching the ball, not running, not exercising, enjoying being with my children, my wife,” he said in Spanish. “I see it more as a break that will be good for me. If there is going to be a before and after the coronavirus in soccer, perhaps it will be at the transfer level, with wages. But it will not affect my career.”

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The English Premier League is tentatively scheduled to return June 17 with Aston Villa playing host to Sheffield United and Arsenal playing at Manchester City. Those four teams have played one fewer match than the rest of the league. A full round of games, all in empty venues, will be played June 19 to 21. The EPL has 92 games left on its schedule and no two matches will be played simultaneously, giving fans the opportunity to watch every one on TV.

Soccer will return in Italy on June 12 with Milan facing Juventus in Turin in a semifinal of the Coppa Italia. Napoli will meet Inter Milan at the San Paolo in the second semifinal June 13. The Serie A league schedule will resume the following week, beginning a 43-day, 124-game dash to an Aug. 2 finish.

A Katai good-bye

The Galaxy’s decision to release midfielder Aleksandar Katai after a series of inflammatory and racist social media posts from his wife didn’t come without costs. But the Galaxy swallowed hard, got out their checkbook and did what was right.

Katai was signed using targeted allocation money, meaning his salary this season was more than $612,500 — substantially more, a Galaxy front-office executive said. The team probably had to pay all or most of that to buy Katai out since the Galaxy said they and the player “mutually agreed to part ways.”

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A spokeswoman for the players union concurred, saying it would take no action on Katai’s behalf since “this was a mutual termination of his contract by both parties.”

How much that cost the Galaxy the team wouldn’t say, but they did say the league would allow them to fill Katai’s roster spot, pick up an international slot and give them at least some salary-cap relief, money the team can spend in the next transfer window. It’s the second year in a row general manager Dennis te Kloese has convinced ownership to spend big to get rid of a player he no longer wanted. Last season the team brought out the final year of Giovani dos Santos’ contract, worth more than $6 million, to clear a designated-play spot for Zlatan Ibrahimovic the day before the season opened.

Importantly, the decision to buy out Katai came just days before AEG, the global entertainment conglomerate that owns the Galaxy, announced it was significantly cutting expenses through a round of layoffs and furloughs and across-the-board pay cuts of 20%. The cuts will affect all divisions of AEG, including the Galaxy, meaning the team was negotiating Katai’s departure at the same time it was preparing salary reductions and layoffs for much of the staff.

The furor began a week ago when Katai’s wife Tea took to social media to ridicule Black Lives Matter demonstrators by posting a screenshot from a video showing two New York City police officers driving their vehicles through a crowd of demonstrators with a caption, in Serbian, that translates as “kill the s—s!” A second post showed an apparent looter with boxes of Nike shoes below English-language text reading “Black Nikes Matter.”

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Katai, who was in Los Angeles while his wife was in Chicago, used his own Instagram account to apologize for the posts, calling them “unacceptable” and saying “these views are not ones that I share and are not tolerated in my family.”

By then Galaxy fans had let the team know it wanted no part of Katai, although team president Chris Klein said the team had to make the decision to part ways with the player and not put the onus on the fans if things go awry.

“I don’t want to say that influenced us, seeing the reaction, because then it’s taking it out of us,” he said. “What I will say is we feel strongly that we do represent our fans and we take that seriously. With the values that we uphold, and certainly from our fans and our supporters, we feel that we represent them.

“This is not a soccer decision.”

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But it will have an effect on the soccer once the team resumes. Katai, 29, a Serbian national team player, was signed as a free agent after the Chicago Fire declined to offer him a contract, even though his production fell dramatically in his second MLS season, with his goals falling from 12 to six. He also made fewer starts and played fewer minutes.

With the Galaxy, Katai was being counted on to feed Hernández from the right wing and though he started both Galaxy games this season he didn’t last 60 minutes either time, calling his fitness into question. He leads the team with eight shots but none of them were on target.

The Galaxy will probably stay with the 4-3-3 formation they started the season with, pushing Sebastian Lletget up from the midfield into Katai’s spot.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

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Quotebook

“Looking at George Floyd, I realized that is me. That was terrifying. I don’t cry. I don’t really cry about anything. But in that moment, I can’t cope.”

Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha on his reaction to being a black man in America watching the taped killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Until next time...

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