NOTE: This is a long post because I put a lot of quotes in it. But I think it's better to get as much out there on the record as possible, so stick with it if you can.
As many of you know by now, Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union announced a new five-year collective bargaining agreement this afternoon. The announcement was made right as Villanova's NCAA Tournament game against Saint Mary's tipped off, so I couldn't be on the conference call with MLS commissioner Don Garber and union chief Bob Foose.
But after the game ended, the Union held a conference call with president Tom Veit, CEO Nick Sakiewicz and defender Danny Califf, who is the team's player representative with the union (lower case).
(And many, many thanks to the Union for waiting for the Villanova game to end. I know it's a selfish thing, but I'm not the only soccer writer in town who also covers college basketball. This made things so helpful.)
We don't have many details yet of exactly what is in the new collective bargaining agreement. But the most important thing to know is that according to Califf, the players would have gone on strike at midnight tonight had no agreement been reached. They would not have boarded their flight to Seattle on Tuesday.
"We as an organization, as league, as players, as fans - everybody is very happy and relieved and delighted that we got this behind us," Sakewicz said. "Now we can focus on the most important stuff, which is the soccer."
Sakiewicz admitted he "thought this might come down to the wire."
But he praised both sides in the negotiations, concluding that "the relationship between the players and the teams and the management is going to be that much stronger for having gone through the process."
Califf praised the Union front office for being "receptive - not that we always agreed, but it was a man-to-man conversation, and it helped out a lot. It gave me a lot of support, it gave me a lot of confidence that I could go in and speak for us as players."
The Inquirer's Marc Narducci asked Sakewicz if the team would have gone to Seattle no matter what. He answered as follows:
Obviously, we didn't know what the outcome of the weekend's discussions would be, but I will tell you this. Our organization - the front office staff, the technical staff and the players - were extraordinary in following through on the game plan to go to Seattle and open up our season. When Tom and I went down to North Carolina and Florida, there was no holding back.
They were very focused on preparing themselves for an important game in Seattle and it was great to see, and I'm exceptionally proud of the fact that our guys didn't allow the distraction to get in the way. And that was a real testament to their commitment to our club and our commitment to Seattle next Thursday.
Narducci asked if there was any contingency plan just in case, and if they would gone left either way.
Obviously, a lot of canceled flights and a lot of scrambling to make new plans. If there would have been an interruption, we would obviouly not have gone, but we didn't have to make that decision, thankfully.
Veit added that the team was going ahead with its marketing and advertising plan no matter what.
We had quite a bit of advertising to get ready for the game on Thursday night, for people to watch, and for our opening game on [April] 10th. That's starting to run Monday, and we let it go. We were assuming we were going.
Another one of the key points in the new CBA is an improved ability for players to move between teams within the league. It's not quite free agency, but there will be something called a "re-entry draft."
Sakiewicz's reaction to it:
What it tells me is that the players union representatives and the league folks that were negotiating this really got creative in terms of providing new rules that protect players who've been in the league and have served well in the league over the years, but perhaps are either on the tail end of their careers or are maybe not desired by the team that they have been with, but still have an opportunity to play in the league.
I'm looking forward to hearing more details about the re-entry draft. As I understood the commissioner earlier on the call, and Bob Foose, within the league, there will not be free agency. But there will be this re-entry draft... to mitigate the situation where those players who are terminated or released by their teams will still have an opportunity to play elsewhere....
The same result will be accomplished for those players with the re-entry draft concept... Don said more meat needs to be put on the bone but the concept will be agreed to in principle.
Sakiewicz was asked if there's an increased cost associated with the new system. His answer won't surprise you.
My understanding is the salary cap will go up and the players will be paid more money.
But the league's first priority financially is still to remain prudent. Sakiewicz is not the only person still haunted by the ghosts of the North American Soccer League.
The one situation the owners don't want to get into, a situation that could be fiscally disastrous for the league, is one owner bidding against another owner for players. I had a front row seat to watch the North American Soccer League dissolve because of that dynamic.
At this point in Major League Soccer's history, we're not ready for that. But I think the alternative that the league and players developed addresses the ability for this league to grow financianlly.
Califf is on board with the concept.
I think there were two huge issues for players going forward in these negotiations, guaranteed contracts - or some form of guaranteed contracts - and player movement. Whatever you want to call it. You want to call it free agency, you want to call it the re-entry draft.
Basically, giving a guy an opportunity that if his team decides he doesn't fit, then he is able to go someplace where he can fit and where he is desired. And whether that's taking less money in order to go some place else or just being in a situation where you feel about going to work every day. That was the crux of the whole deal....
At the end of the day, we're all a family here at the Union. I think it's something that's going to be a tremendous thing going forward, and I'm just happy that it's behind us. There's no more cautiously optimistic, it's Seattle here we come.
Califf emphasized that a major point in the negotiation from the players' side was improving the salary structure for what he called "the spine of the league" - players in the lower and middle range of the pay scale.
I think we accomplished a tremendous amount as far as increasing the rights of the players, and I think the league gave us a great deal. They retained the things that made MLS what MLS is, and I think it was three steps forward in the process, and going forward I think it's going to create goodwill on both sides of the fence, as opposed to maybe in the past, there being a bit of resentment on the players' side as far as how much rights you have as a player.
I'm most happy that we made big gains for the guys that make up the heart of MLS. I think the guys that are in the middle income, that make up 60 to 70 percent of the spine of the teams, I think that we made huge strides in protecting their rights and giving them options, and I think the league recognized that. And they were very forthcoming with recognizing that there were some things that went on the past that weren't right, and that they needed to set the record straight.
The biggest thing for us was that we made big strides in helping the heart - as far as player-wise - we felt the heart of MLS. Those guys who certainly aren't your David Beckhams or your Juan Pablo Angels, but they're middle incoome guys that roll up their sleeves and go to work every day and are the spine of the league.
It is not just a coincidence that a lot of the players who make up that "spine" are American players, or at least players who have come through the American college system. Major League Soccer was created first and foremost to develop better American soccer players, and it has done so.
Now the players who are making their way up the ladder are getting better compensation for their work. More from Califf:
I think that throughout the history of the last 14 years of MLS, when you come in from outside you are afforded a bit more leeway as far as contracts and everything like that. We were looking in this negotiation to take care of the American player who came through the ranks, who put in his time, who's not the DP, who's not making 200 grand a year. The guy that's making making 50 grand a year, 40 grand a year, that puts in the same effort - that makes up the spine of the league.
We accomplished that. That's what those guys - the American players that make up 80 percent of the league - that we felt that we helped most.
This is not protectionism, or anything close to it. Those of you who've followed MLS over the years already know that, and those of you haven't can understand why protecting that middle class of player is important.
(I know that phrase has some political connotations, but I couldn't think of a better alternative. Sorry.)
Though he is on the management side now, Sakiewicz understands why the players fought this battle.
Many of us that played in the 80's, we had to find other options because there were a lot of foreigners in our domestic leagues and we couldn't get jobs. So a lot of us had to go overseas and play in second divisions and whatnot. So when we started this league 16 years ago, there was an acute focus on developing and leaning towards the American player...
The quality of the American player has gone up dramatically over the last 15, 20 years, and I think we should still continue to manage that league in that regard - to give more American players more opportunities to get better and be better and compete on the world stage. So as we manage this business going forward, we always have to keep that in mind.
I had a great job in a bank, making money, and I wasn't going to get into this league unless it was going to be about the future development of American players. I think we're going to stick to that going forward.
At the end of the conference call, I asked Califf if, in is heart of hearts, he really wanted to go on strike.
Califf didn't answer right away. Instead, we heard a shout from his young daughter, who had scored a hat trick in her game that was going on at the same time.
Finally, Califf responded.
No. That's God's honest truth.
For Califf, Garber, Sakiewicz and everyone else, the hard work is done. Now we can finally talk about what happens on the field.
And I can finally say this: I'm flying to Seattle on Wednesday afternoon, and will be blogging live from Qwest Field on Thursday night. It will be an historic occasion and I hope you'll join me for it.