Players still left without freedom of movement
Amid the cheers, whoops and hoorahs emanating from all involved with Major League Soccer after Saturday's collective bargaining agreement between the league's owners and the MLS Players Union that avoided a work stoppage, an uncomfortable if unavoidable conclusion slowly materialized as the dust settled: The players didn't get what they fought for.
While the players would speak no ill of what they consider progress in their fight for more freedom, it is becoming abundantly clear that the players made little progress on the one thing that truly mattered to them: rights.
We don't know the exact wording of the new CBA yet -- that isn't expected until sometime in the coming week -- but the players didn't win the free-agency rights they sought.
"Everybody recognizes that [free agency] was the elephant in the room," MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a conference call held Saturday to announce the agreement. "Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements but they will not be free agents within the league."
In order to get the players to agree to a new five-year term, owners sweetened the deal with some extra money here and there. More contracts will be guaranteed, unilateral team option years in contracts will be limited to two, and minimum salaries and the salary cap are said (but not yet confirmed) to be going up. More money will also be reaching the players from other, as of yet unknown, places.
But the epicenter of the negotiations was that the players wanted rights and said they cared less about money. In the end, they took more money and gained very little in terms of free agency.
"These negotiations were always about player rights," MLSPU executive director Bob Foose said on the conference call (several attempts to later reach the players' union were unsuccessful). "Players' ability to move freely within the league will be greatly improved."
Greatly improved? Not really. From what we now know, it appears that players whose contracts have expired or have been canceled will be entered into a re-entry draft, most likely to be held every December.
"It's a way for a player to be exposed to every other team in the league," Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad said. "There was a form of free agency we were looking for. There were a lot of concerns. One of the big ones was that when you get waived you should be free. If a team doesn't want you they shouldn't get any compensation for you if another team wants you. They met us halfway on some of the rights stuff or ended up giving us what was fair."
In the same vein as Conrad's remarks, many spoke of an increased flexibility for the players. But simply shackling a surplus or unwanted player to another team doesn't give the player any more rights than he had before. While one team won't be able to hold a player hostage anymore, another team will. His new team is just as likely to offer him an unfair deal or not bother to offer him one at all -- holding on to his rights until it has found a use for him, found another team to offer adequate compensation or keep the player in perpetuity. The highest bidder will never be found, as there will never be more than one.
The whims of whoever acquires the rights of a player will still rule. The re-entry draft is closer to the status quo than it is to free agency. Union objectives like the free movement of workers, honoring the rules of international soccer, and gaining the same rights as soccer players the world over were not met.
In truth, free agency was probably never really on the table. MLS has spent too much time and money defending its single-entity concept, which gives the league a de facto bye in the free-agency battle.
Garber said it in plain English: "MLS was founded on the principle that our owners would not be competing against each other for a player's services. When we think of free agency, it is that concept of internal bidding. There will not be internal bidding for a player's services."
So long as that claim wasn't made inoperative, the players were never going to attain their ultimate goal. And they clearly haven't yet garnered the clout to pull it off. So while they may delight in the agreement they've come to, the outcome can't possibly be hailed as a victory for them. They improved their lot to be sure, but win they didn't.
And in addition to their core objective, the players abandoned something else too: one of their own.
Alone among the rubble of the many battles fought to come to this new agreement stands Dave van den Bergh.
In November, FC Dallas decided not to exercise its unilateral option on van den Bergh, who had commanded a well-above-average salary but also came second in the league in assists, was vital in his team's last-ditch run on the postseason and played in every game. Yet it made him no offer. It was well within its rights to do so. Van den Bergh hadn't meshed well with coach Schellas Hyndman, who had also announced his intention to build a younger team, seemingly dooming the 33-year-old van den Bergh.
It's what Dallas did next that was the problem.
Van den Bergh's play, which he maintains he'll be able to keep up for several years more, attracted plenty of interest. The Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders and especially Los Angeles Galaxy all inquired as to the option of trading for van den Bergh. All were scared off by FC Dallas' outlandish demands. (MLS claims that van den Bergh was twice offered -- once by Dallas and once by Los Angeles -- a contract at a reduced wage but that he refused to entertain the offers.)
So van den Bergh, one of the league's most recognizable players, won't be saved even by the re-entry draft as it is allegedly retroactive only to players dropped since Feb. 1, 2010. Van den Bergh's option was dropped in November. He's stuck.
"He is the last guy hung out to dry out there and it's unfortunate," Conrad said of van den Bergh. "We tried to solve all the problems."
Leaning over a plate of chicken-fried steak, which he barely touched, in Irving, Texas, a few weeks ago, the usually chipper van den Bergh looked gaunt and tired, a man laboring under the crushing weight of limbo. Limbo that his employer and its overarching infrastructure were quite happy to let him fester in forever.
Van den Bergh's plight, and every other player's nightmare, is not an aberration. He didn't fall between the cracks ripped into the earth when a new system leveled an old one. Even if van den Bergh's situation is resolved in the near future, his is a problem that several have faced and one that could haunt others.
Any team that wants to treat its players like FC Dallas did van den Bergh can still do so. And therein lies the crux. Until the players can seek employment without restrictions, they haven't achieved their goals.
"We've made some good progress and it's a step in the right direction," counters Conrad. "We knew we wouldn't get everything we wanted.
"Hopefully in five years' time [when the just-agreed upon CBA expires] the next group of guys will be able to step up and go for what's next." That's what really happened here. The current crop of MLS players left the real fight for another day, for another generation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.