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Soccer newsletter: MLS labor negotiations could get messier

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber speaks.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber
(Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we start today with the so-far-failed labor negotiations between Major League Soccer and the players’ union.

Spoiler alert: this will not end well.

The reason it won’t end well is because it didn’t begin well, and for that much of the blame goes to a league that has greatly overplayed its hand, continuing to threaten the players with lockouts while squeezing them for concessions that, in some cases, they’ve largely agreed to.

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The latest heavy-handed push came Friday, in response to a union offer that sought middle ground in talks for a new collective bargaining agreement. (This is the second time in seven months the league has forced the players back to the bargaining table to renegotiate a CBA both sides agreed to last winter.)

The league opened its statement optimistically, saying it had agreed to extend the negotiating deadline for another week (good) and announcing the two sides had committed to a regular schedule of meetings (better). But then it torched all that at the end of its three-paragraph release by saying the MLS Labor Committee has voted unanimously to terminate the existing CBA and institute a lockout if a new deal is not reaching by midnight Eastern time Thursday.

What began as a good-will search for compromise quickly devolved into a suicide pact, one in which MLS promised to destroy the league to save it. And the MLS, which hasn’t gotten much support for its position, doubled down on its philosophy of negotiating in public Monday, posting a self-serving primer on its website that presents only one side on the argument.

If the league thought its soccer-starved fan base was going to take that side, it has been proven woefully mistaken. Every sports organization – pro and college – has been adversely affected by COVID-19, but MLS is the only one to seriously consider a lockout. Not once, but twice.

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So it was no surprise that on Monday the Independent Supporters Council, a leaguewide coalition of fan groups, issued a strongly worded statement of its own in which it unequivocally backed the players.

“Throughout the continuing negotiations and despite the concessions they have already made, the players have made themselves clear; they want to play,” the statement said. “They want to play not just because of their love for the game, but for the cities they represent when they walk on the field. They want to play for the supporters in the stands and at home. They want to play to continue bringing our communities together. Our players understand how much the beautiful game can bring a community together, even when we can’t all physically be together. So, as befits the solidarity at the core of the best communities, we, their supporters, unite to support our players during this time. “

“Major League Soccer the message from the supporters is simple,” the statement concludes. “Let them play.”

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LAFC’s supporters’ union, the 3252, echoed that.

So how did we get here? A year ago, MLS and the players association agreed to a ground-breaking five-year CBA after months of largely respectful and cooperative negotiations. But neither side had ratified the deal before COVID-19 struck in early March, shutting down all pro sports and leading MLS to throw out the labor pact.

That forced the parties back to the table to work out a new agreement ahead of the MLS Is Back tournament in July – and this time the league played hardball, throwing out some of the things it had agreed to in February, instituting pay cuts and a freeze on pay increases and demanding inclusion of a force majeure clause, which would allow either side to back out of the CBA due to a catastrophic event such as a global pandemic.

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The players agreed to $150 million in concessions in those talks last spring, yet the league still threatened to lock them out if they didn’t capitulate completely within 48 hours. And though the players gave in, the strong-arm tactics created deep wounds in the union membership, wounds that have been infected by the current lockout threat.

The league has legitimate issues that must be addressed. MLS makes the majority of its money on game-day sales and sponsorships, for example, and commissioner Don Garber said the pandemic could wind up costing the league $1 billion in revenue. He has failed to produce a detailed accounting for that figure, but its indisputable the league will continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars until teams are allowed to fill their stadiums again, something health authorities don’t expect to happen until late summer or early fall.

As a result, the league is asking for another $100 million in concessions from players, who in many ways have already made sacrifices, big and small. In addition to wage and bonus cuts they agreed to last June, for example, the union said nearly 1 in 5 players tested positive for COVID-19 during the 2020 season. And in addition to the month-plus most teams spent in quarantine in Orlando for MLS Is Back, the league’s three Canadian clubs spent the final two months of the 2020 season away from their families in the U.S. because of a ban on cross-border travel.

In their latest counter, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, the players have offered $53 million in savings through a reduction in growth of the salary cap through 2025 and a reduction in their share of profits from the next media rights deal, dropping it from 25% to 12.5%. In return, the union wants MLS to lower the threshold for free agency to players 23 years of age or older with at least four years of service in the league. That’s a year less than the current figures in each category.

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The major sticking point – one the league is ready to institute a lockout over – appears to be the length of the CBA. The league wants it to extend through the 2027 season while the union wants it to end a year earlier.

The difference isn’t insignificant. The 2026 World Cup will be played largely in the U.S. and is expected to produce a significant financial boost to MLS and its sponsors. Extending the CBA well beyond the World Cup, Carlisle said, would rob the union of leverage to win concessions or to threaten a strike in the run-up to the tournament.

Expect the negotiations to intensify as Thursday’s deadline nears but that deadline is really an artificial one. Training camps won’t open until Feb. 22 and the regular season – a season for which schedules have not yet been released – won’t begin until early April, leaving plenty of time for the talks to continue.

The union, which has largely avoided the public posturing the league has taken, has privately advised its players to prepare for a lockout. So while the league’s threat may have hindered the talks, it wasn’t a surprise.

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Whether that warning proves to be prophetic is now up to the league.

Rodríguez loan could be big benefit for a patient LAFC

If there is a 2021 season, LAFC’s decision to loan underperforming and unhappy forward Brian Rodríguez to Almería of Spain’s second division opens a number of possibilities for general manager John Thorrington.

Rodríguez, 20, joined LAFC as a young designated player in August 2019 and played in 26 games, scoring just twice but leading the team with seven assists last season. However the most important part of that sentence is “designated player.”

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The loan immediately clears a third DP spot for LAFC although Thorrington will have to be careful when to use it because Rodríguez could be returned after Almería’s season ends in May if certain performance thresholds, which would make the move permanent, aren’t met. If LAFC signs someone before then and Rodríguez returns, it would leave the team with four DPs to squeeze into three spots.

Thorrington has already put together a strong, deep roster so I would expect him to wait to make sure the loan becomes permanent before using that DP spot to address whatever needs arise at midseason. (Imagine if Thorrington had a DP spot open last August when Carlos Vela torn his ACL?)

Rodríguez was somewhat of a disappointment in his time at LAFC and didn’t start any of the team’s final five games in 2020, playing just 12 minutes off the bench in team’s three games in the CONCACAF Champions League. He played a full 90 minutes just once after September although he did appear in nine games for the Uruguayan national team since coming to MLS.

Diego Rossi, LAFC’s another Uruguayan playmaker and MLS’ leading scorer in 2020, had reportedly drawn interest from Reading of England’s second-tier Championship, but the transfer window closed Monday without a deal being announced.

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Remembering a pioneer…in two fields

Dave Sarachan, a longtime Galaxy assistant coach and more recently the interim manager of the national team, wrote earlier this month to tell me of the passing of Terry Lippman.

Lippman may be best known for his work in the music industry, having helped discover Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 and scouting and managing the likes of George Michael and Melissa Manchester. But prior to that Lippman was a U.S. soccer pioneer, playing as a walk-on at UCLA and later professionally, first with the NASL’s Rochester Lancers, where he was a teammate of Sarachan, a boyhood friend, and later with the Fountain Valley-based California Sunshine of the American Soccer League.

“Terry and I shared a childhood together while growing up as friends and teammates through high school in soccer and basketball,” Sarachan said. “Moving to California after high school and walking on at UCLA was very brave and a testament to his deep desire to blaze his own trail and succeed.

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“While he remained a life-long soccer and Galaxy fan, his true passion was in music and he carved out a wonderful and successful career in the music entertainment world. He was a true Renaissance man”.

Lippman was also a frequent presence at Galaxy and national team training sessions at Dignity Health Sports Park. He lost a two-year battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on Jan. 8. He was 66.

Galaxy youth movement arrives but is it better late than never?

When Bruce Arena left the Galaxy for the U.S. national team after the 2016 season, AEG, the club’s parent company, seized on the opportunity to remake the club through the youth academy and its USL affiliate, a development system on which the company had spent millions.

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So the front office got rid of nine veterans, trimmed the payroll by a third and gave nearly 40% of the team’s minutes in 2017 to products of that development system. That proved to be too much, too soon with the Galaxy losing a franchise-record 18 games and finishing last for the only time in history.

But that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. So the Galaxy have modified their youth-movement approach a bit, building over time rather than turning over their roster in one afternoon. As a result, with last month’s signings of midfielder Adam Saldaña from Panorama City and defenders Jalen Neal of Lakewood and Marcus Ferkranus of Santa Clarita, 14 of the teams 23 first-team spots are now occupied by players who have come through the developmental system.

Saldaña, 18, made 26 appearances with Galaxy II over the last three seasons, while Neal, 17, made 13 appearances for Galaxy II and Ferkranus, 17, five during the 2020 season. All three also played for several of the Galaxy’s age-group academy teams. They join in-house products Efraín Álvarez, Julian Araujo, Nick DePuy, Cameron Dunbar, Kai Koreniuk, Eric Lopez, Jonathan Perez, Daniel Steres, Diedie Traore, Justin Vom Steeg and Ethan Zubak on the roster.

Only time will tell if the plan will work this time but home-grown players accounted for nearly 30% of the Galaxy’s minutes in 2020 when the team went 6-12-4 and missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

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And finally there’s this….

Alex Morgan, who played just 45 minutes for the national team since the 2019 World Cup, was named to the 23-woman roster for this month’s SheBelieves Cup. Also returning is forward Christen Press but Tobin Heath, Press’ Manchester United teammate, is out for as long as three months with an ankle injury…. Yorba Linda teenager Matthew Hoppe, who scored five goals in his first nine Bundesliga games with Schalke, has signed a contract extension through the 2022-23 season…. The Spanish newspaper EL Mundo has published documents showing Lionel Messi’s four-year contract with Barcelona is the richest in sports history, worth more than $670 million. The club has threatened the paper with legal action but has not contested the accuracy of the story, which came just days after El Mundo reported Barcelona is $1.4 billion in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.

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.

Quotebook

“The Black Lives Matter cause is real. We need to do more to for equity. We need to do more to close the economic gap, we need to do more for education of impoverished communities. And that’s what we should be striving for. When you talk about this great country of ours being the land of opportunity, it really needs to be the land of opportunity for everyone.”

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USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter on his team’s decision to continue calling attention to the Black Lives Matters campaign. During Sunday’s 7-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, Berhalter and his staff wore black t-shirts with the message “Be The Change” on the front and “Black Lives Matter” on the back

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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