Major League Soccer is back. But it took a circuitous and at times tenuous road to get there, and it was for a time in danger of not happening at all.
The league and the MLS Players Association on Wednesday ratified a new collective bargaining agreement that runs through the 2025 season, includes salary and bonus cuts for players, and a return-to-play scenario that would take all 26 teams to Orlando for a tournament.
While there are several significant provisions in what both parties agreed to, one that could possibly the most significant, at least in the short term, is the agreement to play the Orlando tournament. The MLS season has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 12.
“Today’s vote also finalizes a plan to resume the 2020 season and provides players with certainty for the months ahead,” the MLSPA said in a statement. “It allows our members to move forward and continue to compete in the game they love.”
League Commissioner Don Garber said during a Zoom call that he could not give specific details on the tournament. The most recent proposal reportedly has all teams arriving near the end of this month and staying for about six weeks, per ESPN. It also calls for group stage games to count toward regular season standings.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who is one of the team’s representatives with the MLSPA’s bargaining committee, confirmed that the first three games of the tournament will count toward the regular season, but the subsequent ones won’t. However, there will be a “bonus pool," but the specifies of how that will be divided is yet to be determined, MacMath said.
Garber did say that the tournament will last “a maximum of 35 days.” He also said that barring specific circumstances, players will be required to participate in the Orlando tournament. That’s in contrast the NWSL’s Challenge Tournament, which players can decline attending.
The amount of time spent in Orlando away from families and pregnant partners — originally up to 10 weeks — plus the possibility that the tournament would little more than bragging rights, caused some players to express doubts about the previous idea.
Games will be played without spectators, and there’s still no concrete plan as to what happens after the tournament ends and teams travel back to their home markets.
MacMath said players on RSL were “a bit divided" on voting in favor of the CBA and tournament. He said some players didn’t want to go to Orlando, some didn’t want pay cuts, and others just wanted to start playing again.
MacMath said he personally felt safe heading to Orlando. His biggest concern is for his wife and young child, who would have to stay back in Utah for the duration of the tournament.
“On the standpoint of going to Orlando, I think all the precautions will be taken and hopefully there is no spread of any virus,” MacMath said.
The agreement also ends a saga that started in February when both sides tentatively agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that never had the chance to be ratified due to the pandemic.
The two sides agreed on a player salary reduction of 5% for 2020, Garber said. In recent weeks, the league has floated several pay cut options to players — including ones of 50%, 20% and 10% — in an effort to mitigate financial losses. The MLSPA has made counteroffers to the league, one of which giving the league more than $1 million of financial relief.
Both sides also agreed to add a force majeure clause to the CBA. Many of the previous provisions had been largely agreed to with the exception of how the clause — a provision that would allow either party to back out of it in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a pandemic — would be initiated, per multiple reports. The league wanted the clause tied to attendance in 2021; the players didn’t.
That impasse — plus others tied to a revenue sharing plan and the exact pay cut players would incur — caused MLS to balk at a proposal the MLSPA sent over the weekend, saying it had put forth its best offer and the union would have until Wednesday at noon ET to approve it or face a lockout.
Players around the league responded to the threat Monday by refusing to attend scheduled training sessions. RSL was one of them. MacMath said he hopes teams’ refusal to train helped the league reconsider its position.
“That’s the first time in the 25-year history of our league that we ever had to get to that point,” Garber said of the lockout threat. “Its 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 negotiation. But it was something, as the leader of this league, that I believed was necessary in order for us to get to the point today that we have reached an agreement.”