A contract dispute may ruin may favorite sport in this country, at least for the next few years. No, not that sport, soccer.
If you don't care about sports, or hate soccer because it's something the French are pretty good at, then move on. If a fan or curious, then continue reading after the jump.
The final round of (men's) World Cup qualifying for the North American and Caribbean region starts next month, but the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) has said it will use scabs if a new contract with players isn't signed. For those of you unfamiliar with the business of international soccer and the structure of the world's game in the U.S., let me give you a brief summary.
There are a number of features that make this contract dispute a different creature than what the NHL is going through now or the NBA, MLB and NFL have faced before. For one, the USSF, which was founded in 1913, isn't just the governing body for the senior national teams, but also manages various youth teams for the men and women which have international competitions and training camps of their own. It runs a series of training camps and programs for the development of coaches and referees, among other things. Also, if teams from the U.S. are to be eligible to play in any of these international competitions, we have to remain in the good graces of FIFA, the international governing body, and USSF is our representative. Finally, unlike NHL owners, the USSF is a nonprofit organization. Major League Soccer (MLS) is its own entity, which cooperate with the USSF, and is not affected directly by this contract dispute. (They have also had a love-hate relationship, as the USSF had gotten used to being the only dog in town for more than eight decades before MLS was founded.)
What does it affect, then? The players who are called in from their regular club teams -- from the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS to Manchester United in England to Bayer Leverkusen in Germany -- to train and play with the national team. With the growth of soccer in this country, American players increasingly are being recruited to play for clubs all over the world, which greatly complicates the task of the national team coach Bruce Arena to bring them together to play their matches. They are professionals, and the World Cup is a professional tournament, so the contract covers, among other things, compensation and terms for all players invited to play for the national team.
And unlike basketball, which has only a handful of relatively short international tournaments, and only one of which -- the Olympics -- draws players from the NBA, soccer competitions run throughout the year almost every year, scheduled in and around the regular seasons for the clubs. World Cup qualifying, for example, starts a good two years before the tournament itself; more countries participate in the men's World Cup than in the Olympics, more even than there are members of the United Nations, and everyone is given a fair shot at the start.
Back to the players. Most of the money they make is tied to their club team. This is especially true for the stars who have been lured to the big European clubs. Another wrinkle is that there is no single "national team" but instead a broad pool of players Arena will call in for a given match, driven by who is healthy, who is rested, who is performing well, and who matches up well against the opponent. He will also call in more players to a training camp than would be on the bench for a game in order to assess who plays well together. The contract under negotiation would cover anyone donning the U.S. uniform, whether in training camp once or a regular starter in every match. The Players' Association, therefore, is negotiating not just for the regulars you might have heard of -- Tim Howard, featured on 60 Minutes last night, and Landon Donovan, who just left San Jose for Bayer Leverkusen (no, Freddy Adu is still too young to make this team) -- but for everyone who will be called to one of these training camps.
The last contract ran out after the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. team made it to the quarterfinals and, quite frankly, outplayed Germany before losing. Given that the quality competition runs many times deeper than the relatively new women's World Cup, not to mention that the matches were played half a world away in Korea, I'd say this was an accomplishment that ranked as high if not higher than when the U.S. women won at home in '99. And with that success, the USSF found its budget running well into the black after several years of struggle, but the players have been at status quo since that contract expired.
Normally in a labor dispute my hunch is to support the union over management. Here, both sides have made too many mistakes to count. For years the USSF treated players like crap, and at times acts like it prefers the old days when it was the only fish in a very tiny pond. With the slow but steady growth of the sport for more than a decade, coupled with the growing success of MLS and the international notoriety of American players, they feel a power shift. Problem is, they know only one way to play and that is as tin-pot dictator. The offer they made gives players a raise, but basically just keeps up with the inflation since the last contract was signed. Players want to do better.
The USSF rejected Arena's offer to mediate, probably the only person on the USSF payroll with real credibility with the players. When a training camp was called without the agreed-upon formal notice after two years without a new contract, the players decided to make a small statement by not showing for it, and the USSF over-reacted by locking them out and threatening to hire scabs from the start. They withdrew their offer from the table, and in offering arbitration conditioned it as a take-it-or-leave it without permitting the arbitrator to split the difference. Moreover, rather than permitting the players free rein to make its counteroffer it said conditions would have to be met before arbitration would begin. In other words, play by our rules or don't play at all, under the guise of a neutral arbitration setting.
On the players' side, they are exaggerating the financial losses European players endure in order to play for the national team in order to make the case for more compensation, and probably underestimate the costs the USSF faces for its many duties not tied directly to the men's national team. While the team is the federation's most revenue-generating and famous face, it is not all there is, unlike with the other major pro sports in this country. And, in a move that made for more bad PR, the players turned down mediation it had offered before because they would not take striking off the table while formal mediation continued.
Read the message boards at BigSoccer for the latest.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric from each side becomes more strident and the clock ticks down for World Cup qualification for Germany '06. MLS players, in a show of solidarity, have refused the call from Arena and the USSF to play as scabs in the first qualifier, and now the team looks to be composed of minor leaguers, "stars" of the dying indoor league, and youth players. There are ten round-robin matches against the five other teams for these regional finals spread over the next several months, and the more time passes the harder it will be to make up the ground later.
Worse, not qualifying for the World Cup would be embarrassing, cause the fickle and conservative sports media in this country to ignore the sport even more, and just about put the team on ice until early 2008 when everyone starts planning for the 2010 Cup. And if that happens, it can't be good for MLS, which is just now starting to hit its stride.
My fear is that it could end up like the 1972 World Cup qualifier against Mexico, played in Los Angeles, long before the recent growth of American soccer. The coach, desperate to find someone -- anyone -- who could fill out a minimal roster, looked to a fan in the crowd, Slobodan (Barney) Djorjekic, and, rushing some last-minute paperwork to satisfy the bureaucrats at FIFA, got him on the field as our eleventh player.
Just in case, guess I'd better buy a new pair of cleats.