The members of the U.S. national team are no longer being locked out and there will not be a players strike during World Cup qualification. Of everything that transpired on Friday, that's the most vital piece of information. Everything else will be put on hold, for the time being.
Even though the bitterness between the United States Soccer Federation and the U.S. Men's National Team Players Association (USMNTPA) remains and the end is hardly in sight, at least the best American players are now being summoned into a training camp and the prospects for qualifying for another World Cup look a lot brighter than they did at this time last week.
"It's a little bit of a relief," said veteran defender Greg Vanney, who is currently playing for FC Bastia of the French First Division. "The players can now go back to what we do best, and that's to take care of our business on the field."
The upcoming qualification match against Trinidad & Tobago on February 9 just went from being an impossible situation where even one point earned would have turned Bruce Arena into Herb Brooks, into a realistic chance for the U.S. to gain three points on the road.
No matter which percentage increase the players received - 38 percent as the U.S. Soccer Federation says - it's certainly a boost in pay for the regulars that will add nicely to the contracts they have with their own clubs already.
With the new rates in place, including a payment of $2,750 to be made for each player per qualifier, to go along with added bonuses, let's take a look at what a first-choice player like a DaMarcus Beasley or a Landon Donovan could expect to make over the next year. This of course is assuming that Bruce Arena's side play at the level most everyone has come to expect from them since reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002:
Money in appearances: $24,750
That's for playing in nine of 10 qualifiers. Remember, the final qualifier might not mean anything for the U.S., if all goes as well as planned, as was the case last time around. Only Earnie Stewart and Jeff Agoos played in all 10 matches in the final round of qualifying last time in 2001, with Chris Armas and Tony Sanneh behind them with nine appearances each.
Money in bonuses: $26,750
That figure comes from assuming the U.S. wins two of the four matches against Mexico and Costa Rica ($6,250 apiece) and three victories in the other six matches against Guatemala, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago ($4,750 per win). Considering that the U.S. won five matches in the final round of qualifying in 2001 and is a stronger unit in 2005, this could even be a conservative figure.
Total money from National Team play: $51,500
That's a much better total than what would have been earned under the last contract in place before the Players Association accepted the latest proposal from U.S. Soccer. Adding to this total will be the fees paid out to the players from additional friendly matches, as well. It may not mean as much to the players based in Europe who are making hefty salaries, but it will to the younger players in Major League Soccer, many of which are currently making less than six figures a year. If a young national team pool player like an Eddie Gaven sees action in five or six of these matches, that $25,000 or so received in money from the United States Soccer Federation is a large chunk of change to augment his MLS salary.
That type of scenario has been considered by the Player's Association from the moment it started negotiations.
"For a player like me, who is 30, whatever comes from this contract won't pay off too much," said Vanney. "It's the younger players who will benefit. We just tried to get a contract in place that is more on par as to where the sport is now in this country and how it's progressed over the last several years. We're just looking to be on a more level playing field with (U.S. Soccer) as far as the money coming in."
It was only nine years ago that a similar stance was taken by players who are amongst the most celebrated in the history of American soccer. Men like Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda weren't thinking as much about themselves, as they were the players who had either just started their national team careers or hadn't even burst onto the scene yet, when they threatened not to play in Copa America back in 1995. The bonus structure the players were offered back then was structured in a way where the starters would make more than the substitutes and the cash would be distributed on a scale determined by how many caps you had earned for the national team going into the tournament.
When the veterans noticed that Kasey Keller, who had yet to earn 10 or more caps at that point, would earn nothing for trip to Uruguay, in addition to a few others, they banded together and forced the Federation's hand. Ultimately, it was that brave stance that resulted in the eight-year contract that ended in 2002, not to mention the forming of the current Player's Association.
The commitment to the future displayed back then cannot be forgotten. It's also one of the reasons that the young players on that trip - Gregg Berhalter, Brad Friedel, Frankie Hejduk, Claudio Reyna and Keller - have been almost obligated to fight for the generation below their own because of what the players much older than them established back in '95 after sticking their necks out on the line and risking their own futures with the national team.
While the recent stand by the PA has already resulted in higher wages for the current players and likely will increase in some fashion before the 2006 World Cup begins, it's also important to keep in mind what players from around the region get for their countries. For example, MLS standouts like Damani Ralph and Tyrone Marshall receive only $1,000 every time they make the 18-man roster for the Jamaican national team. Should the Reggae Boyz win, these players receive an additional $500-$1,000. And that's for a country that lives and breathes the game and worships its players, as well as one that has been to a World Cup as recently as 1998.
For the players on Trinidad & Tobago's national team, there is a bonus scale depending on the meaning of the match. It is usually between $500 to $1,000 for a victory. For the match against the U.S. on February 9, the Soca Warriors would receive over $1,000, and possibly as much as $2,000, should they pull off the upset, says one source.
It's all about perspective with this latest deal, which is why it has been so hard to take sides.
There are a few areas where common ground has been reached, though. When asked if the long trips across the Atlantic for matches with the National Team were taking its toll and were mentioned amongst the several players based in Europe as a reason for an increase in pay, Vanney said that it wasn't much of a factor.
"I don't think anyone's complaining about that," he said. "People are very happy with the way we are treated in that respect. The travel is always first-class and Pam Perkins (General Manager for the U.S. national team) always has seen too it that we're taken care of."
It's not all nasty, is it?
The major point that both sides are in agreement on is how qualifying for a World Cup is absolutely essential for soccer in the United States. Failing to qualify this year, whether it's with the regulars or if that band of relatively-unknown USL and MILS replacement players actually played in a match or two, would have been a disaster to both sides. Not only would the sport suffer in this country, but both sides would come away a little lighter in the wallet, too.
For now, the players are back on the field and U.S. soccer fans have good reason to believe that they'll be celebrating a World Cup berth later this fall just as they did in October of 2001 on that fateful day against in Foxboro. In the meantime, the representatives will continue to talk, but in the backrooms, and not on the back pages. For the time being, that's progress.
"Hopefully the parties will both be able to sit down and work it out at some point," said Vanney. "As for the players, we just want to play and not worry. Going into every match, we just want to think about the game ahead of us and qualifying for the next World Cup, and nothing else."
The clock is ticking: 17 days and counting.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.