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Players, league complete first collective bargaining agreement; ratification needed.

By Robert Wagman

CARSON, Calif. (Thursday, November 11, 2004) -- For the first time, Major League Soccer players have a collective bargaining agreement with the league.

MLS, which will stage its ninth championship match Sunday when the Kansas City Wizards face D.C. United at Home Depot Center, and the MLS Players Union, announced the deal in separate press releases today. Negotiations for a CBA began when the MLSPU was certified in April 2003.

The tentative five-year agreement is still subject to ratification by the MLS board of directors, considered a certainty because of the league's single-entity structure, and by a majority vote of the players. Because most MLS teams have dispersed with their seasons over, it could take several weeks for a ratification vote by the players.

"Both sides approached the discussions looking forward and not looking back," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis told Associated Press. "Negotiating a modern-day collective bargaining agreement from scratch is immensely difficult, and the process took longer than anyone anticipated. But at same time, the amount of ground covered, and the range of issues on which agreement was reached, was enormous."

The new deal apparently does not directly address the league's salary cap, believed to be $1.73 million per team, nor an overall increase in player salaries. What it does accomplish is to establish a higher minimum salary, improve the players health and life insurance package, add to their retirement benefits, and give MLSPU members a greater share of licensing revenue.

MLS gave no details of the pact in its two-paragraph release.

According to the MLSPU, the current $24,000 minimum salary will increase to $28,000 in 2005 and 2006, $30,000 in 2007, $33,000 in 2008, and $34,000 in 2009.

Beginning next season, developmental players, who are paid well below the minimum, will have their salaries increase "significantly," as well as receiving fully-paid medical benefits for the first time, the union said.

A 401(k) plan will be established, providing for a mandatory league contribution of 2 percent of each player's base salary in 2005, increasing annually to 3 percent in 2009. In addition to guaranteed full health care, paid by MLS, life insurance benefits will increase five-fold, the union said.

The players apparently made no advance on their desire to eventually gain free agency. Currently, MLS clubs retain negotiating rights to players on their roster, even when said players' contracts expire.

"The negotiations have been long and at times have been difficult, but we are happy that we have finally been able to reach an agreement that makes real gains for players," D.C. United's Ben Olsen, an MLSPU executive board member, in the union release. "More importantly, this agreement will serve as a foundation on which to build gains in the future"

MLS said it will have no comment on the agreement until it is ratified.

For the first four years of the league, which began with a 1996 season, the players did not unionize, instead forming the MLS Players Association. Since unions are not allowed to sue, the technicality allowed the MLSPA to bring suit seeking to invalidate the league's single-entity ownership structure where all players contracts are owned and paid by the league.

The players eventually lost the lawsuit which claimed MLS was an illegal monopoly in violation of anti-trust laws.

"Certainly there was some history to get over, and the issue of the law suit came up at various points," Bob Foose, a Bethesda, Md., attorney and MLSPU executive director in the union release. "I don't think that was huge issue for either side. Both sides worked very hard to get through the negotiations. While they were very long, and both sides were frustrated at times, the tone of negotiations was good."

Managing editor Gary Davidson contributed to this report.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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