Real Salt Lake focuses on preseason as MLS and players association extend deadline for collective bargaining agreement

San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Valeri Kazaishvili (11) works for the ball against Real Salt Lake midfielder Nick Besler (13) during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, July 6, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. San Jose won 1-0. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

The clock is officially ticking.

The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and the league’s players association was set to end Friday. Both sides announced Thursday that they extended the current deal an extra week, until Feb. 7, citing positive momentum in their talks.

“The two groups have engaged in productive discussions and will continue to negotiate a new CBA,” both sides said in a joint statement.

The extension seems par for the course of past CBA negations. In 2015, a new agreement wasn’t agreed to until March, not long before the regular season started.

What looms is a potential work stoppage the MLSPA says it has prepared for over the last two-plus years. While that’s not the outcome the union wants, it’s certainly on the table.

“If we do need to have a work stoppage and go on strike, we’re ready for that,” said Real Salt Lake midfielder Nick Besler, who is one of two player representatives for the club. “We don’t want that to happen, but we are ready for that if it were to come down to that.”

The union has recently been more open about what it’s looking for in a new agreement: more freedom of player movement, more competitive compensation, less complex budget rules, and better incentives and benefits for players. Better travel conditions have also been a major talking point.

Put those pieces together and the puzzle reveals what the players union feels is a league that others would choose rather than explore as a last resort. It wasn’t that long ago that the perception of MLS was as a league players joined at the tail end of their careers.

That perception has already shifted significantly, with players like Miguel Almiron being sold for record amounts and the influx of Liga MX players joining MLS in recent years. The current MLS players want to build on that momentum.

Take the issue of free agency. The current CBA states a player is a free agent if he is at least 28 years old and has played at least eight seasons in MLS. Only 12% of all players were eligible for that status in 2019, per the MLSPA.

If a player is out of contract and a club owns his rights, he is free to leave MLS and join another league. But if he returns to MLS, he has to go back to the club that has his rights. That’s exactly the situation of former RSL forward Sebastian “Bofo” Saucedo. So it appears that if a player wants to join another club under the current system, it can’t be within MLS unless it’s via a trade or loan.

The current free agency system is relatively new. It was negotiated as part of the CBA signed in 2015. Before then, the league went 20 years without any form of free agency, the MLSPA says. The union wants to find a way for players get hit free agency at an earlier stage of their careers, Besler said.

“At the end of the day, we just want the players to have the ability to kind of control where they want to play, where they see what team is the best fit,” Besler told The Salt Lake Tribune in November. “Because at the end of the day, if a club doesn't invest in you as a player, you want to have the ability to find a new situation that will be best for your career.”

Another talking point for the union is targeted allocation money. Bob Foose, the MLSPA’s executive director, said in November that the players have a “very, very negative view of TAM,” which was introduced in the 2015 CBA.

TAM has myriad uses, including allowing teams to sign new players or re-sign players who account for more than the maximum salary budget charge ($530,000), but less than $1.5 million. It can also be used to make a designated player a non-designated player by lowing his cost against the salary cap.

One of the criticisms of TAM is that it is only available for a small percentage of the player pool. While the MLSPA is glad the league has pumped more money into salaries, it feels the current system is overly complicated.

“The impact of TAM — a made-up set of restrictions done from a central office to try and dictate to all of our franchises how they build their rosters — in my estimation, didn't really add anything to this league and it certainly frustrated and angered both the PA and our players,” Foose said. “So from our perspective, in the simplest terms, TAM is silly.”

The message from the players association has constantly been that everyone around the league is united in the effort to get the best deal possible.

“We feel that this is the strongest everyone in the league as players feel connected and unified together,” Besler said.

All of MLS is in the throes of preseason. RSL in particular is wrapping up its second leg of training camp in Phoenix as negotiations carry on in the background.

Other than maybe Besler and Luke Mulholland — the club’s other player representative — no one on the team seems to be thinking about the CBA ending. It’s business as usual for RSL, which opens its season Feb. 29 in Orlando.

“I’m think I’m just going to keep coming in to training,” defender Aaron Herrera said. “I think it’s the same mentality for everyone. We’re all just going to keep coming in to training. If that’s [a work stoppage] what ends up happening, that’s what ends up happening.”