The MLS Players Association announced Wednesday morning that its members finally approved a new collective bargaining agreement with the league, clearing the way to resume games this summer with a tournament in Orlando.
Not all details of how the tournament will work are known, including the date when teams will report to Orlando or the date when games will begin.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday that the event would last a maximum of 35 days. The length of time was a major sticking point for players, especially those who don’t want to be away from their families for too long.
“Bear with us for a bit while we continue to finalize all the details of the Orlando project, so that we can announce it all in its entirety,” Garber said. “I apologize for not being able to give you more details on this call.”
Garber did confirm that players will be able to opt out only for specific reasons. Those include medical and child-care situations, he said. The latter applies to two of the league’s biggest stars, Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Javier Hernandez, whose wives are pregnant — though the Los Angeles Times reported that Hernandez will go.
“But if you’re not falling into any of those categories that we’ve been in discussions with the union about, players will be required to go to Orlando,” Garber said.
Wyndmoor native Daniel Lovitz, a midfielder with the expansion team Nashville SC, said the league has been “relatively reasonable, and certainly understanding of the fact that being there for your child’s birth is more important than being in Orlando for a tournament.”
It’s a contrast to the National Women’s Soccer League, where players can opt out of their summer tournament for any reason without repercussion.
“As for the guys that are extremely worried about the safety and their health, I think that isn’t something to ignore by any means,” Lovitz said. “But I think that the league has done a very good job of enlisting the help of pandemic specialists [and] communicating those details to us, although those details came a little bit later than we would have liked.”
He called the league’s plan “relatively practical,” and added, “Anybody with significant safety or health concerns has had the opportunity to communicate with league officials, with the Players Association and the leadership, to make sure those questions are answered.”
Regarding COVID-19 testing, MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said the league will contract with a provider for the tests in Orlando and right before teams leave. Between now and then, the responsibility and cost will be borne by teams.
The notable adjustments are a 5% player pay cut; a decrease of media rights revenue going to players for the year 2023, the first year of the next round of broadcast deals; an establishment of a force majeure clause in the CBA; and an extension of the deal through 2025.
“Labor negotiations are never easy, and they shouldn’t be,” Garber said. “The labor movement should not be about making things easy. They should be difficult, so that they force both sides to ensure that they’re doing everything possible to not leave anything on the field and address everybody’s concerns.”
As for what happens after the tournament, nothing has been decided. But it’s no secret that the league would like to play games in teams’ stadiums if possible, whether or not fans can attend. The Columbus Dispatch reported that one plan being circulated would see each team play nine home and nine away games later this year to conclude the regular season.
Garber claimed that the league will take a billion-dollar revenue hit because of the pandemic. The math is hard to prove from outside, but there’s no doubt that the hit is major. MLS doesn’t have the kind of big-money TV deal that most other American sports leagues have, so the absence of game-day revenue — tickets, concessions, parking, and so on — is especially important.
The players acknowledged that in their negotiating. They also acknowledged, as did Garber, that the talks were affected by far more than just soccer matters and the coronavirus pandemic. The American soccer community has spoken loudly in solidarity with nationwide protests over discrimination and police brutality, including the recent police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans.
“It’s not enough to produce ads, you know, it’s not enough just to have programs that talk about these issues,” Garber said. “We need to go further, and we’re committed to doing that.”
From the union’s statement:
"There are problems we face collectively that are both more urgent, and more important, than competing on the field. We are grieving, we are fed up, we expect change, and we expect action.
“This change won’t come on the field, but it will come partly through the force and determination of all who seek justice and equality. We hope our return to the field will allow fans a momentary release and a semblance of normalcy. We are committed as a group to doing all that we can — both as leaders in our sport as well as leaders in our communities — to help carry our countries, our communities, our league, and our sport forward.”