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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?
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A long MLS labour stoppage could act as a massive equalizer for Gold Cup, early World Cup qualifiers

2015_CONCACAF_Gold_CupAs soccer supporters in Canada, we certainly don’t want the MLS season to be interrupted by a long labour stoppage.

Even though the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLS and the MLSPU expired at the end of January, the sides realistically have until MLS First Kick in early March to hammer out a new deal in order to ensure that a full season can be started on time. But the sides remain on separate poles when it comes to the make-or-break issue: Free agency. And, with every report of a cancelled bargaining session or lack of progress, the worries increase that a labour stoppage will disrupt the season.

Let’s for a second imagine that we see a nuclear option: A labour impasse that stretches for a significant period of time. The Gold Cup comes up in July; Canada’s World Cup qualifiers begin a month before that. For Canada, this Gold Cup holds special significance as it acts as our qualifier for the 100th anniversary Copa America, which is set for the United States in 2016.

So, if MLS isn’t playing games, how would it affect the Canadian program?

Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani said that this country’s national team would end up faring a lot better than some of the competition.

“From the technical side, there are a handful of players in MLS who could be part of the team that would be at the Gold Cup. And it would hurt if those players weren’t playing. But, when you look at all the countries in CONCACAF, we might be one of the ones least affected by an MLS work stoppage. Certainly, it would not affect us like it would the United States, where the majority of their players play in MLS.”
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Before you tweet about a Canadian player, read this first

10349900_1008071179208840_1372189140274955851_nSome days, writing about Canadian soccer is depressing. Some days, I swear to myself “this is the last article about Canadian soccer I’ll ever write.”

Of course, that would make some of my harshest critics very happy indeed.

I’ve been very public about Issue 5 of Plastic Pitch. A group of great writers are working on stories about our relationship with the American soccer system. Is having Canadian pro teams mixed into the American system good for the our country’s development in the game? Has it actually hurt us?

Through the last few weeks, I’ve been working to get Canadian players to tell their stories. Many Canadian soccer writers hear the tales about aborted contracts, bizarre under-the-table deals, broken promises, fly-by-night agents and the like. But players, understandably, are worried about coming forward. They don’t want to be seen as bad eggs, dressing-room malcontents or selfish players.

But, finally, slowly, some players are coming forward. Until the stories have faces, the system won’t change. But in the process of putting stories to paper, you can’t help but get snowed under by it all. You wonder if supporting Canadian soccer is like plunging into an endless pit of hopelessness. You understand how the cards are stacked against our players. Those stories will be (at least partially) told in the next issue. It will be by far the most important thing we’ve done.

There is something I want to address, though. Something I’ve thought hard about in the process of doing these interviews. We’re in that part of the NASL and MLS silly season (and right near the closing of the transfer window). So, the message boards and Twitter are filled with jokes about the number of Canadian players on Unattached FC. Many fans wonder “why doesn’t player A try to join NASL Team X or MLS Team Y? Why doesn’t he take a chance to play halfway across the world?”
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Is Sunday the worst sports day of the week? A fascinating Edmonton study

FC Edmonton plays almost all of its home games on Sunday afternoons.

FC Edmonton plays almost all of its home games on Sunday afternoons.

Major League Soccer plays some of its games on Sunday afternoons and evenings. FC Edmonton of the NASL plays all of its home games on Sunday afternoons.

But is Sunday a day that we, as in Canadians, actually want to watch sports? Or is it a day that we’d like to get away from the sporting universe? Even the most ardent fan reaches a critical mass, where he or she says “enough” and needs to do something else than follow scores and trades and watch game after game. You need to spend time with the kids, go to the lake, just get outside, talk to real people.

In the course of my editing duties at Avenue Edmonton, members of the Edmonton Eskimos brass — our city’s Canadian Football League team — sat down with me to go over an intense survey that they and Banister Research Consulting Inc. conducted. One of the key questions was: On what day do you prefer to watch Eskimos games? (You can find that full article HERE, BTW). The results were fascinating.

43 per cent said their first choice was Friday nights.
41 per cent said their first choice was Saturdays.
And — get this — only seven per cent said they’d most prefer to watch football on Sundays.
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Weak Canadian dollar is bad news for Canadian soccer franchises

loonFor some businesses — a weak Canadian dollar is a good thing.

Professional sports is definitely not one of them. The Canadian dollar flirted with the US 80-cent mark on Thursday. And, the currency plunge will soon be hurting the bottom lines of Canadian MLS and NASL teams.

MLS and NASL teams aren’t forthcoming about the terms of their contracts. But the MLS Players Union sheds some light on how the salaries are paid out. According to MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose: “All contracts are calculated in U.S. Dollars, players can then choose to have them paid in either, or a combination.”

So, according to the union, it’s the player’s (or agent’s) call when it comes to determining if the cheques are paid in American or Canadian dollars. And, it’s hard to imagine a player not choosing to get paid in the more stable currency — the Yankee dollar. In the NHL, where there are seven teams out of 30 are Canadian, contracts are paid out in U.S. figures — including Canadian players on Canadian teams.

Toronto FC has confirmed that all MLS salaries are in US dollars.

The salaries we see published by the MLS Players Union are all in American dollars. So, if Toronto FC has Designated Player Michael Bradley on for an MLSPU-reported salary of $6.5 million, that’s American dollars. So, as of Thursday’s exchange rate, Bradley’s salary is now at nearly CDN$8.05 million, and going up (in Canadian currency) as the loonie plummets.

Try this as a comparison: At the start of the 2014 MLS season, the Canadian dollar was at 90.2 cents US. So, a year ago, Bradley’s contract was worth about $7.2 million in Canadian bucks. This year, it’s over $8 million. And that’s all because of the plunging dollar.
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Ecstasy and the agony: Larin feels the sting of defeat hours after being No. 1 MLS pick

Cyle Larin

Cyle Larin

Just hours after being taken first overall in the MLS SuperDraft, Orlando City SC striker Cyle Larin took to the field in Jamaica with the Canadian U-20 side.

And, deep into second-half stoppage time, Larin stood right next to Romilio Hernandez as the El Salvadoran forward buried the dagger-through-the-heart winner off a set piece. Keeper Nolan Wirth made a diving stop off the first attempt in the box. Larin, who was back in the box to help defend the set piece, had the rebound carom off of him before it fell to Hernandez, who slammed the ball in. Final score: El Salvador 3, Canada 2.

“It was a hard ball to handle and it came into the box really fast,” Larin said after the match. “It came over the first line and the ball bounced and it just it me and hit Nolan (Wirth) and it just kept bouncing everywhere and they just put it in. It went right to their player and he put it in. It was bad luck but hopefully in the next few games we’ll put this behind us and get the result we want and hopefully make it to the World Cup.”

With the heartbreaker, Canada’s under-20s now have two losses out of three games in group stage action at the CONCACAF Championships, and their hopes to qualify for the U-20 World Cup now hang by a thread.

Larin — who was one of two Canadians taken in the first round of the SuperDraft; Skylar Thomas went to Toronto FC — enjoyed a robust celebration with his teammates before the game. But Larin and the Canadian offence failed to trouble the El Salvadorans in the first half. Canada had only two shots toward target — and neither were on goal.
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For TFC, is an Altidore reclamation project worth the risk?

jozyThe right player at the right time. That’s the hallmark of a good signing.

But, as news emerges that Toronto FC is favoured to sign American striker Jozy Altidore as a Designated Player, can we actually say that this is a case of the team signing the right player to fill their needs — at the right moment?

Right now, TFC has Designated Players Gilberto, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley on the books. The conventional wisdom is that Defoe will not be back with the Reds in 2015, despite words to the contrary from team brass. But, under the terms of the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement, TFC is maxed out at the DP position.

And, that’s the elephant in the room. When the CBA expires in the middle of the month, we can’t say for sure how many DPs a team will be able to have, and what the cap hits for those DPs will be. Basically, Altidore’s signing would play into a series of moving parts that makes it hard to truly pinpoint the kind of domino effect he would have on the roster.
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Atiba Hutchinson can negotiate new deal in January: And he’s open to MLS move

15064416849_5a15726b3d_zAtiba Hutchinson, named Canada’s player of the year on Thursday, is nearing the end of his contract with Turkish giants, Besiktas. In January, he can start negotiating with other clubs unless his contract is extended before that time.

And, the Canadian says that he wants to stay, but he’s also open to moving on if the opportunity was right — and that would include Major League Soccer.

When asked if he’d consider talking to an MLS side in January, Hutchinson said “yes, especially if it was in Canada. I’m open to it if the interest comes, if things can work out and do what’s best for everybody.”

But, he said he’s really enjoyed his time with Besiktas. He said it’s the first time in three or four years that he’s regularly playing in his natural midfield position, and he feels that, at 31 years of age, he’s at his peak as a player. He said the fans in Turkey have treated him very well.
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Without a CBA in place, there’s a “possibility” union action could see Montreal, DCU forfeit CCL matches

“The Collective Bargaining Agreement is scheduled to expire on January 31, 2015,” Foose wrote in an e-mail. “When it expires, the obligation not to engage in a work stoppage also expires. I do not want to comment on when or if there would be a work stoppage. All I can say is that unless there is a Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, there is always the possibility of a work stoppage.”

The Montreal Impact is scheduled to be in Mexico on Feb. 24, as the team is scheduled to open its two-match CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final with Pachuca. Two days later, D.C. United is scheduled to meet Alajuelense in Costa Rica.

But what if those games are forfeited by the MLS sides — because the players are in a work-stoppage situation?

Unless a new deal is reached quickly, there’s a good chance that there will be no Collective Bargaining Agreement in place between MLS and its players union in February. The current deal expires in January and the sides are only in the first stages of negotiations.

Now, it needs to be stated that in 2010, when the union and the MLS only came to a deal just days before the start of the league’s regular season, the CCL matches went on unaffected.

But that don’t-play option is open to the players if there is no CBA in place.
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State of the MLS roundtable: Since there’s no movement on roster equality, now is the time for Canada to get tough

Well, at Tuesday’s roundtable, Garber confirmed that there isn’t going to be a new approach. When pressed by Leduc, Garber retreated back to the argument that U.S. labour law prevents Canadians from being domestics on American soil. He said a Canadians can’t be treated any differently than a Mexican, a Honduran or a Brit. So, Garber made it clear that the status quo will remain — and that roster equality will not become reality in MLS.

Don Garber began his roundtable with a group of five selected journalists with an overture intended for Canadian ears. He said that if Canada doesn’t qualify for a World Cup in his time as MLS commissioner, “It will be a mark I truly regret.”

He said he wanted to work with the Canadian Soccer Association, and that the United States, Canada and Mexico together could be soccer powerhouse.

The feel-good vibes lasted until it was time for RDS’s Patrick Leduc to ask his question. He asked the commissioner about the league’s stance on roster rules as they pertained to Canadians. In MLS, Canadians are recognized as domestics on Canadian teams, but as imports on American teams. But Americans are domestics in both countries. In July, Garber said “We are working on a new approach to our international player rules as they relate to Canada. Stay tuned.”

Well, at Tuesday’s roundtable, Garber confirmed that there isn’t going to be a new approach. When pressed by Leduc, Garber retreated back to the argument that U.S. labour law prevents Canadians from being domestics on American soil. He said a Canadians can’t be treated any differently than a Mexican, a Honduran or a Brit. So, Garber made it clear that the status quo will remain — and that roster equality will not become reality in MLS.
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