Critics have skewered MLS players in the last few days for supposedly bungling negotiations of the new MLS collective bargaining agreement. The common assessment is that they achieved free agency, but with strict limits on salary; they increased the salary cap, but only marginally; they kept the CBA at five years, but that's only a minimal victory since it's the same length of the previous agreement.
Yet the union has plenty to be proud of in these negotiations. They opened the free agent door—a significant achievement—and they substantially raised the minimum salary, which now allows every player to make a livable wage.
So really, the players didn't massively screw up the negotiations. But they've done a terrible job of managing the message. Perception is sometimes more important than reality in these matters, and that's certainly the case when the result of these negotiations has called the union's leadership into question.
There's a chance that MLS Players Association executive director Bob Foose and his partner Jon Newman will lose their jobs for what many people have described as a calamitous result.
But the reality is that the players were never going to win this labor fight. At best, they were going to tie, and even that seemed improbable because, despite strong pronouncements from players that they were ready for a real fight—a possible strike—the union never really had the leverage to take such strong action.
The owners already have the infrastructure: new publicly-funded stadiums, a new television deal, a new marketing campaign. The league is not going anywhere. This is not the old NASL fighting for solvency. MLS is a legitimate business with wealthy, intelligent investors and a single entity structure that ensures long term financial stability.
A strike would have been damaging, but it would not have shaken the foundation of the league. MLS would have recovered. The owners knew this. And, really, so did the union, which is why, according to several reports, Foose and Newman on Wednesday night encouraged their players to accept a deal that only 60 percent of them favored.
It was the right move. A strike could have crushed the relatively young 12-year-old union.
And yet, confoundingly, in the months leading up to the final week of negotiations, the union seemed to be encouraging players to speak publicly about favoring a strike, a media tactic the owners saw as predictable, almost laughable, and hardly believable.
Ultimately, no matter how the deal came out, anything short of pure, unrestricted free agency was going to look bad for the union, mostly because of its own publicly expressed expectations.
Once you say you're going to strike to get what you really want, well, you better do it. Otherwise the perception will be that you caved.
So in the end, many players and agents felt unfulfilled by the new deal. It appeared there were those who wanted to see a strike simply to show the owners that the players had no fear. It's a somewhat silly stance, but that's what happens when you rile up a group and make promises that you don't keep.
"Time will help," said one agent, who hoped the discontent would go away.
The overall reaction to the deal has ranged from tepid at best to vitriolic at worst. Here is a sampling from various agents, and others close to the union, who requested anonymity for their candor:
"The CBA fails to meet the stated goals or expectations of the players. This is really disappointing that they didn't stick to their guns. Having agreed to this deal, they must now live with it, as they have with the last underwhelming CBA, for another 5 years. I don't think any player will look back in 5 years and congratulate the MLSPU on a job well done."
"I am disappointed that the players had a real opportunity to make a difference at a small cost of a few games and they didn't seize that opportunity."
"Free agency piece is a joke."
"The players blinked first. Despite their hardline rhetoric regarding a strike, they ultimately weren't interested in going that route. The league knew it and waited them out until the last minute and agreed to a deal that doesn't look great at first blush. [Wednesday] morning when Chicago boarded the flight to LA, the owners knew they had them. The decision to strike or not should have ultimately been made on Tuesday night when the vote was more unified."
Those are harsh assessments, but popular ones.
"Their reaction is really bizarre and grows out of totally inflated and mismanaged expectations," said one source close to the negotiations. "Union leadership really blew that. They should have been crowing about a major victory."
The larger question now is what happens to Foose and Newman.
Newman works for the union on retainer so he can be replaced. But Foose is still under contract, and any move to remove him from power would need a collective vote of "no confidence" from the players. Or the players could just wait for his contract to run out.
Neither Foose nor Newman returned a request for comment.
The duo is generally well liked and respected. But there's a faction that believes they aren't hard line enough to fight against the owners, and that the duo has established too good of a relationship with the opposing side. A common complaint is that they aren't sophisticated or strategic.
Even before serious negotiations began, there were not so subtle suggestions that Foose and Newman were essentially bargaining for their jobs. It's hardly the way you want to enter such serious talks. But any change in leadership prior to an agreement would have been seen as a sign of weakness. So for better or for worse, the union was going into these meetings with a leadership group that did not have the complete support of the players, a less than an ideal position for Foose and Newman.
Union leadership is a tenuous thing. Even the best leaders don't last forever. Marvin Miller spent 16 years with the Major League Baseball Players Association and he is considered the best sports labor attorney in history. Miller was succeeded by the quite capable Don Fehr, who spent 14 years on the job, and led baseball players through a major work stoppage. Foose and Newman have now led the union for 12 relatively calm years.
There is an expiration date to these types of gigs, and Foose and Newman might have hit it. They were perhaps the right pair to lead the group out of the doldrums of the Fraser antitrust case aftermath, but the fact that there are questions about their leadership might indicate the union is ready for a change.
"This player population is stronger and more militant than earlier incarnations," said a source close to the negotiations. "I won't be surprised if they look for new [leadership]. The problem will be the expense. How many of these guys will even be here in five years?"
The biggest challenge for the union moving forward will be finding the right message to send for future negotiations. They've found out the hard way that perception can be more important than reality.