Why the MLS-USL affiliation makes the free-agency issue even more urgent

usl_logo_detailWhen the now-expired Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed between Major League Soccer and its Players’ Union in 2010, the league didn’t have an established farm- or minor- or developmental league system.

Sure, MLS teams could loan out players or sometimes make deals to have them spend time in NASL. But, in 2010, other than reserve-team games, there was no entrenched system that could see a team send an under-contract MLS player to an affiliated lower-league team.

But, in 2015, MLS has an agreement in place with USL; the final dominoes to fall were the Canadian teams, now that the Canadian Soccer Association has granted sanctions to USL franchises in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver — albeit with tough quotas on how many Canadians those teams must put on the field.

It really doesn’t matter if you call the USL a developmental league, a league that deserves to be recognized as second division across North America, a farm league or a minor league. The fact is, all MLS teams carry the power to assign at least some of their players to their USL affiliates, much like Canadian forward Kyle Porter spent most of the 2014 season in Richmond and after being sent there by D.C. United.

Down the road, it would be hard to imagine an MLS without two-way contracts, like we see in the National Hockey League. A two-way contract is a deal which calls for a player to make one salary figure if he plays at the major-league level, and another salary if he’s at the minor-league level.

And it’s at the USL level where the issue of free agency — the divide that separates the union and MLS brass — might be most important. If players can be “parked” in the lower division for the lives of their contracts, including team options, then it’s hard to call USL anything else but a farm system. But, if players who are with MLS teams but don’t get the chance at first-team MLS football are offered the chance to move on, then we can argue that truly, USL is a system that puts the development of the player, first.

How so?

Let’s look at the NHL, where every team is affiliated with an AHL franchise. The NHL CBA recognizes that an AHL player in a stacked Chicago Blackhawks system might get the chance to play at the NHL level (and make more money) because he could be good enough to play for the Oilers or the Hurricanes or, ahem, the Leafs.

So, the NHL CBA has Group 6 free agents. Basically, any player who has more than three seasons of pro experience (and that can be the major Euro leagues and/or the AHL or a combination of time spent in multiple leagues), and hasn’t played 80 NHL games, can be an unrestricted free agent at age 25.

That rule isn’t in place about salaries. It’s about giving the players chances to establish themselves somewhere else if they’re caught on treadmills with their current franchises.

As well, there are mechanisms in place to ensure that players who are designated for the minors a certain number of times — or who are veterans — must clear waivers. This ensures that a veteran player can’t simply be sent down to mitigate a cap hit or that a player simply can’t be bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL.

If MLS was to grant free agency to players who had a specified amount of years of professional service but had only played a low threshold of first-team matches, it wouldn’t burn the salary cap. These would be players who would only be making five digits in the current MLS salary structure. It’s about freedom of opportunity, not cost. Because, as much as we talk about the need to develop players, at some point “developmental” soccer becomes a prison.

I’d argue that the MLS threshold would need to be a) fewer games and b) at a lower age. At 25, a guy who gets a shot could still be looking at 10 years of professional hockey, barring injuries. But, for a soccer player, 25 is old. In a lot of cases, too old for a team to take a chance on. So, since 23 is the magic Olympic qualifying age, I’d suggest that be the cut-off age. If you aren’t playing MLS first-team soccer by age 23, and if you’ve been under contract for at least three years (again, because of the accelerated nature of the soccer career, maybe two years pro service would be fairer to the players), a team can’t simply pick up the options and send you back to USL or have you rot on the bench. You should be allowed to call around.

Because, the trap is that USL could become a place to stash players making low salaries on contracts laden with team options. That is, the team decides whether or not to pick up the contract, and the salary raises from option to option are negligible.

Remember that a player sees his mid 20s as his earning years. He needs to make money in order to make up for the fact that he might have left school early and closed himself off from other career options. He might have to be prepared to support a family and go back to school or be unemployed for a while after his career ends. So, you don’t look at player earnings as a by-year thing; you look at earnings over a career.

And this is why free agency continues to be such a major hill for the players’ union. But, the addition of USL to the mix makes for an even more colourful debate.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.