The USSF is threatening to use replacement players for the national team's World Cup qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago on Feb. 9 if the Players Association doesn't agree to a new collective bargaining agrement by Feb. 1. The players contend that they have been locked out while the federation states that the players began the battle by choosing to strike when the players boycotted a planned national team camp in December. The Players Association denies that it ever began a strike.
The dispute centers on failed negotiations for a new labor agreement between the Players Association and the USSF. The last collective bargaining agreement ended at the conclusion of 2002 and the sides have spent the last two years futilely attempting to find common ground for a new agreement. As with all sports labor disputes the issue is money and how much each side feels is a fair distribution of it.
The USSF contends that its proposal would give players a 38 percent pay increase over the previous collective bargaining agreement while the federation contends that the players are asking for a 122 percent increase in the new agreement and a 182 percent increase over the first two years of the agreement.
The PA disputes both figures stating that the federation is working from numbers that do not include an estimated $10 million in annual sponsorship revenue generated by the national team.
The federation's decision to remove guaranteed retroactivity of any eventual agreement which would pay players the newly agreed upon pay totals for all games played since 2003 may have just been a strategic maneuver to expedite negotiations. It may have in fact served to simply push the players to act by boycotting the December camp.
How did things go from a quiet labor dispute to a full-blown controversy that has American soccer fans both nervous and angry? Here is a timeline of events:
Oct. 6 - National team players meet with USSF President Dr. Bob Contiguglia in Washington D.C. to discuss the lack of progress in negotiations.
Oct. 21 - The USSF notifies the PA that because of a "threat to strike" by the players it was taking the retroactive portion of any potential agreement off the table.
Nov. 24 - Players notify federation of intention to skip proposed national team camp in December. The PA also files unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Dec. 8 - Federation issues ultimatum stating that it would use replacement players for World Cup qualifying match if the PA didn't agree to new collective bargaining agreement by Feb. 1.
Who you side with depends solely on whose numbers you believe. The federation claims that the PA's decision to seek its own rights to market its players excludes them from being owed any portion of the approximate $10 million in sponsorships the national team generates from sponsors such as Nike and Philips. The PA laughs at the notion pointing out that the federation offered to buy the rights the PA held for $50000.
"If they want to buy those rights for $50000 and give us the percentage of sponsorship money we deserve then we can do that said Mark Levinstein the PA's lead negotiator. "Every other sporting organization has an equitable distribution of sponsorship money yet somehow we can't come to that agreement."
Whether or not it was the players who struck first or the federation who actually locked them out who started it isn't nearly as important as who will end it. The federation ultimatum has done little to shake the PA's resolve and even if the USSF backs off of its deadline and allows players to report for camp there is no guarantee that the players wouldn't then choose to strike citing mistreatment by the federation.
The situation has gotten uglier than anyone could have imagined and the sides have no scheduled meetings on the horizon. It may take the NLRB filing charges against the federation to get the USSF to budge off its current offer but even that may not be enough to salvage the U.S. team's efforts in its opening qualifier.
That reality is scary considering there are only 10 qualifying matches in the upcoming round meaning every match could mean the difference between qualifying for a fifth straight World Cup and not.
"It's not just about the 2006 World Cup or the 2010 World Cup it's about all the initiatives we're responsible for said USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse. "It's about the long term investments we make in the sport and the long-term growth of soccer in this country."
With both sides firmly dug in for a hard battle it is going to be a long and cold winter for American soccer fans.