Chicago and Los Angeles are set to kick off the Major League Soccer season on Friday night, but with the opening game just two spaces down on the calendar, and the league's full Saturday slate barely 72 hours away, no deal has been reached in the ongoing CBA talks between the owners and the players' union. The two sides negotiated late into the evening in Washington, D.C. last night, with owners and league officials departing before midnight and the players' side staying past the early morning hours. The players' frustration was evident; one source on their side was quoted as saying, "It's shocking. The owners are almost wanting a work stoppage." by the Washington Post's Steven Goff.
The central issue of the talks appears to be free agency, with the owners unwilling to consider anything like the open competition for players that has become the norm virtually everywhere else in the professional sports world. At one point yesterday, the owners reportedly offered a modified form of free agency that would have offered freedom to only players who had played at least 10 years with their current team - a rule so draconian that exactly one MLS player, Houston midfielder Brad Davis, would have qualified. Later in the day, several sources reported that the owners had nudged this offer to include players who were at least 28 years old, and had spent at least eight years in the league - but that those players, while able to choose their new team, would have their salary increases capped at 10%.
For comparison's sake, NHL players are able to reach unrestricted free agency at age 27, and after seven years in the league - and of course there is no limit on what kind of salary increase the player might make. Players may reach restricted free agency earlier, generally around age 25, in which teams must make qualifying offers to retain a right of refusal on any contract offer the player might sign; otherwise, the player becomes unrestricted. In baseball, age is not a factor; players are effectively indentured servants for three years, then have three years in which they may take contract grievances to an arbitrator, after which they may become unrestricted free agents.
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it is only in MLS where teams claim a right to players even after contracts expire. In every other sport, it's taken for granted that once a player's contract is over, and a team has renounced the ability to sign that player, then the player may sign with any team he chooses. In MLS, this isn't true.
The few signs of hope on Wednesday morning, after three fruitless days of negotiating, were simply that the season hadn't yet been delayed. Several sources this morning reported that players still planned to board their scheduled flights for this weekend's games, leaving open the possibility that a deal could still happen. Montreal played its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal as scheduled on Tuesday - with Minnesota native Calum Mallace providing the key assist late in the game to send the Impact through to the semifinals - and there was no indication that DC United planned to skip its own quarterfinal on Wednesday night.
Assuming players do indeed make their scheduled flights, the decision process could be delayed all the way up until Friday afternoon. But with the sides still so far apart on the free agency issue, very few seemed optimistic that a deal was possible - let alone imminent.