MLS Soccer

MLS labor deal a victory for U.S. soccer fans

TUKWILA - You've heard that the perfect compromise occurs when both sides feel certain they've received the raw deal.

Ownership and players of Major League Soccer, however, seem to have been able to meet at a metaphorical midfield and come away with a collective bargaining agreement that makes both sides delighted with the main critical point.

The tentative agreement that was reached last weekend averted a work stoppage that could have damaged the league and everybody with a stake in it.

Basically, there’s still no free agency (a hallmark of the league’s business model), but roughly three times as many players will have guaranteed contracts, and players have fewer restrictions on movement after being released by a team.

The main point: The season will begin as scheduled.

In Seattle, that means that the Sounders FC, coming off the most successful expansion launch in league history, will play host to the expansion Philadelphia Union on Thursday at Qwest Field.

Every available seat will be occupied. The crowd will be loud. And the momentum gained last season will not be stifled by continued labor uncertainty.

“You’re never going to get everything you want, but both sides wanted to get something done and both sides gave what they needed to give, and we’re playing now because of it,” said Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller. “I don’t think you can truly find any situations where a work stoppage is beneficial. Both sides were extremely committed to not having a work stoppage. We know that we’re starting to build some very good momentum in this sport in this country, and the last thing we wanted to do was derail that.”

The MLS operates under a “single-entity” structure that features a degree of revenue sharing, and players are under contract to the league rather than specific teams.

Keller, who attended the marathon labor talks last weekend in Washington, D.C., said that an important realization came from the discussions: If one team in this single-entity concept treats players poorly, it reflects badly on the other teams and the league as a whole. Consequently, he expects there to be more of a “watchdog” atmosphere regarding players’ rights once the details of the agreement are finalized.

Hearing some stories of players’ issues around the league reminded Keller how good the Sounders have it in Seattle.

“If all the teams treated their players like Seattle, half these issues never would have come up,” Keller said.

Coach Sigi Schmid has put his team through a nine-week preseason camp in preparation for the season. The last thing he wanted was to have everything shut down the week of the first game.

“Work stoppage was not going to be good for anybody – for us or the league,” Schmid said after Monday’s practice at the team’s Starfire facility. “The players were able to move forward in their agreement and get some rights they’ve been trying to acquire; at the same (time), it allowed the owners to continue to have a format they felt would allow them to continue their investment.”

Across the league, it brings a five-year stability to a growing young enterprise. Growing, especially, in the Pacific Northwest, Schmid pointed out.

“I think with each passing year, with Portland and Vancouver coming onboard next year, I think the league is just going to get stronger and stronger, and the base of soccer is swelling,” Schmid said.

Like staffs across the league, Schmid and management are going to have to make some quick decisions on their rosters in the next couple of days, a little more difficult task as players’ contracts may now have some new guaranteed components to consider.

This is a small matter compared to what they would have faced if the stadium had been dark on Thursday.

“(We want) to continue to play good soccer, continue to entertain the fans,” Schmid said of this year’s mandates after last season’s inaugural successes. “We played a good brand of soccer … we want to keep our fans happy.”

In any sporting league, but especially in a young one trying to gain traction among its fans, few things are as dangerous as labor issues. The MLS and the Sounders dodged it. Both sides budged to make it work.

It’s one time in soccer when a tie can feel like a victory.