It was a perfect Bay Area day, one that belied the calendar's insistence that it was actually January, as the sun shined brightly over Avaya Stadium. The pristine grass of the field cushioned the players feet as the San Jose Earthquakes completed their first day of preseason training with a series of interviews with the local media. Optimism was high for a team that was riding a 14-game winless streak and a last-place finish in the Western Conference last year but was welcoming the homecoming of head coach Dominic Kinnear. Excitement ahead of a new season, the first in their brand new and still very shiny stadium, was palpable from all associated with the club.
But there was a lone cloud hovering over the proceedings -- the ongoing negotiations between MLS and the MLS Players Union on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to replace the current expiring deal. And when Earthquakes union representatives were asked to provide updates on the talks, serious faces replaced lighter ones.
"We're meeting frequently with the league at this point," said Ty Harden, one of two current representatives on the Quakes. "We are not where we want to be. Both sides are pretty far apart on some of the really important issues to us."
"There was a meeting last Tuesday between the union and the league," added Clarence Goodson, the other representative, "and we remain extremely far apart on the two main issues, which are player compensation and player movement. In fact, we were scheduled to have a second meeting next week, and that meeting was called off because we were extremely far apart."
Sam Cronin, recently traded to the Colorado Rapids, was the third of the team's three representatives, and Goodson indicated that his replacement would be named shortly. In the meantime, he had Harden have been very busy talking with union leaders and keeping their teammates abreast of the latest information from those conversations. Paramount to the duo, and the entire players union, is that the league loosen the rules that govern how players are allocated to teams. In other words, the players want a model that is closer to the free-agency other professional sports employ. The other big concerns is the disparity between MLS salaries and those that players in other leagues earn, a gap that improved player movement should ease as well.
"This has been a five-year process," said Harden. "We have been building this since the day we signed the last agreement. It's been a long process, and of course there are more hours being spent on it now, but it has been building that entire time. It's not just to what we are discussing today and now."
The last CBA was hammered out in 2010 and agreed to just five days before the start of the regular season. At the time, the league was not yet a decade removed from almost folding and a season from fielding 15 teams. Heading into 2015, the league is thriving and has goals of achieving a greater stature in world soccer by 2020. And with the contraction of Chivas USA, MLS has 20 stable franchises in all four corners of the U.S. and Canada.
"It's pretty different this time around," continued Harden. "Obviously the league is in a different spot. The way the league has grown -- we've all seen that -- the way players are treated in the league has not grown at the same rate."
"We feel that the players that helped build this league and drive this league should be compensated better than they are," said Goodson.
"We are asking for fairness," added Harden. "We are not asking for things that are outrageous. The things that we are asking for are the things you would expect."
The current CBA official runs out at the end of January, and Goodson and Harden both stressed that negotiations would continue past that point. However, with MLS First Kick slated for Friday, March 6, when the Chicago Fire visit LA Galaxy, both acknowledged that meaningful concessions by the league may not be offered until the last minute.
"Once you feel that pressure, there's usually more that gets done," said Harden. "Whether that is the case this time or there is a work stoppage is hard to say until you get there.
"We are still working diligently for a deal, and I think there is a deal to be made that is fair for both parties. Having said that, there are certain things we have to have in this deal to reach an agreement. All of our players, we are on the same page and have the same understanding."
"We are optimistic that a deal can be done and that communication lines will stay open," said Goodson, "but we as a player group are extremely supportive of one another. We are a strong group, and if it comes to it, we are certainly prepared to strike."