In two days, Sporting Kansas City will return to Tucson, Ariz., for the second leg of its preseason training camp. Over the ensuing two weeks, the club will put in the final preparations for the 2015 Major League Soccer season, which opens March 8 against the New York Red Bulls.
The possibility of a work stoppage — one that would delay the start of the season — continues to loom as MLS owners and MLS Players Union negotiate toward a new collective bargaining agreement. The previous CBA expired Jan. 31.
The two sides have been exchanging proposals since October but haven’t found much common ground, according to Sporting KC veteran Jacob Peterson, the team’s representative for the MLS Players Union.
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“I’m not optimistic we’re going to reach a deal,” Peterson said. “The unofficial deadline is the start of the season. At this stage, I remain hopeful, but I’m not optimistic. It hasn’t progressed the way we would like it to.”
The two issues at the forefront of the discussions are free agency and player compensation. The former appears to be the union’s biggest sticking point — and Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley told ESPN it was an issue worth striking over. Peterson declined to elaborate on the form of free agency players expect to receive.
“We’re a long, long way apart on that issue,” said Peterson, who attended a negotiation meeting in New York in December. “In almost every other profession in North America, you have the ability to choose the city in which you live and work. Other sports leagues have systems in place that do that, too. Obviously, MLS has certain restrictions on the ability for a player to do that.”
The owners and union have been meeting on a semi-weekly basis since the new year — and they hired a mediation service this week to join future negotiations in an effort to expedite the process.
Sporting KC players have referred all questions on the CBA discussions to Peterson, though captain Matt Besler admitted Friday a work stoppage is a possibility.
“From a player’s side, we hope we can get something done. Nobody wants a work stoppage,” Besler said. “But at the same time, if it’s something we feel we need to do in order to get the things we’re looking to get, we’re willing to do that.”
In addition to some form of free agency implementation, the union is also seeking to reward its top players with larger contracts, which free agency would certainly support.
Under the recently expired CBA, MLS players who were offered a “bona-fide” deal — a contract that at least meets the previous contract’s salary, with minimal escalators each ensuing season — could not freely sign with another team in the league.
Players whose contract options are declined must go through the MLS Re-Entry Draft, as former Sporting KC goalkeepers Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum experienced over the offseason. Kronberg is now with Montreal, and Gruenebaum elected to retire rather than join San Jose, which selected him in the Re-Entry Draft.
“Often times, players who have outperformed their contract are stuck with a contract that doesn’t truly value them in the way it would if we did have easier player movement,” Peterson said. “We understand the owners’ hesitation about certain financial aspects, but we think as long as there’s a salary cap, overall player expenditures will not increase.
“There has to be some common ground there. If there’s not, then a work stoppage is the appropriate route.”