Free agency lite: A small step forward in new Major League Soccer CBA By Steven Sandor Posted on March 5, 2015 2 0 599 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter The players went into the Collective Bargaining Agreement process looking for some form of free agency. Major League Soccer and its owners said that free agency would never happen in their single entity system. The compromise that was reached on Wednesday will ensure that no labour stoppage will delay the 2015 MLS season. But it’s hard to judge just what this new agreement in principle will do to the North American player market. According to reports, free agency will be granted to players who have eight years of service in the league, and are 28 years of age or older. But, the salary increases these “free agents” can earn for themselves will be capped. So, in terms of owners opening the door on free agency, it’s barely open a crack. The lock is off, though — and it will be up to the players to kick it down when this CBA expires five years from now. 1) If you go into free agency, and the raise you can potentially earn for yourself is capped — well, that’s not really free agency, is it? It’s a reasonable facsimile of free agency. The league already has a salary cap — which would prevent GMs from overspending on the free agent market; capping the potential increases only adds another barrier for the player. 2) For a soccer player, 28 is old. A soccer player is on a much faster curve to develop than a football, basketball, baseball or hockey player. In hockey, the prime of a player’s career comes in the late 20s, early 30s. Baseball is also in the early 30s. Soccer players are at their best in their mid 20s. By age 28, they are already finding that they are on their downward slopes. A player looks at his career this way; he’s willing to take less as a youngster so he can establish himself. In the prime of his career, he needs to be earning the maximum he can get; and then he understands his salary will slowly wane as he gets older. But, at 28, the free agency (the earning years) period is out of sync with the prime of his career. So, this begs the question: In single entity, when the first 28-year-old goes on the open market, how many offers will he get? Or will this version of the free agency be much like MLS’s waiver draft, where the most common thing we see is players who want new deals being passed over? 3) Add to that the eight years of service, and a player knows this: If he wants to dedicate his career to playing in MLS, he needs to be playing in the league by age 20. This is like taking a crowbar to the knees of the NCAA teams; players know that if they come out of school and into the draft at 21 or 22, they’ll never get to free agency — at least until the next CBA might change things. So, if you’re a current MLS player between 21-23 years of age, you hope that the next CBA will open up free agency a little more. 4) With MLS teams having the ability to assign young players to USL affiliates, a move “down” to the affiliated club would have an effect on getting to those eight years of service. If I was on the MLSPU, I would have demanded this: That USL time served count the same as MLS time served. Think about how it works in pro hockey; any player who has more than three seasons of pro experience, but hasn’t played 80 NHL games, can be an unrestricted free agent at age 25. That means you can’t be stuck as a career minor leaguer without the chance to move on. Likewise, USL players who aren’t called up to their parent MLS clubs should have the chance to look for new clubs after a certain number of years/games served in the third division. Still, despite serious reservations about how much 28/8 will actually change the marketplace (and, if you’re a regular reader of mine and haven’t figured out that I’m a champion of the free market, maybe I need a crowbar to make it more obvious), there is no doubt that the Pandora’s Box that is free agency has been opened. There is no way for MLS to shut it. The people who may want to invest in MLS expansion franchises know that the only way forward is to liberalize the free-agency process with CBA after CBA. MLS grew up a little today; just a little. Free-agency-lite is a start.