USA Could Play Feb. 9 World Cup Qualifier with 'Replacement Players'

By Mark Zeigler San Diego Union-Tribune - Hockey is not the only sport with labor issues.

Soccer is facing them as well so much that the U.S. federation is threatening to take the unprecedented step of using "replacement players" for its men's World Cup qualifying match on Feb. 9.

The contract between women's national-team players and U.S. Soccer expires at the end of this month and negotiations reportedly have turned so contentious that there appears little chance of reaching an agreement before January. But it is the less-publicized men's labor problems that could have the most immediate impact with the prospect of sending a squad of little-known players to Trinidad and Tobago for the February qualifier becoming more real by the day.

The men have not had a labor contract with U.S. Soccer responsible for fielding the country's national teams since January 2003 and have been operating under terms of the old one. The situation however appears to have reached a boiling point.

The U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association – which theoretically includes any male player who has ever donned a U.S. jersey – recently refused to attend a two-week December training camp at The Home Depot Center in Carson. The federation responded by scrapping plans for a pair of qualifying tuneups in January against South Korea and Sweden just days before the games were to be formally announced.

Instead a federation spokesman confirmed South Korea and Sweden will play each other on Jan. 22 in Carson. As the Union-Tribune reported last week Sweden will complete its two-game West Coast tour against Mexico on Jan. 26 at Petco Park because Qualcomm Stadium is not available.

"We have enough of a level of uncertainty with regards to labor issues federation spokesman Jim Moorhouse said "that we didn't feel comfortable scheduling anything in January."

Moorhouse would not comment on the Feb. 9 match at Trinidad the first of 10 qualifiers that determine the CONCACAF region's berths at the 2006 World Cup. But in a Dec. 8 letter to the players association obtained by the Union-Tribune the federation's chief negotiator writes:

"If no collective bargaining is reached by Feb. 1 2005 the USSF will pursue other options for the Feb. 9 World Cup qualifier. The USSF is entitled to use replacement players or other teams as it may elect. Such action is not unlawful and is precisely the kind of action that Congress has reserved to employers to allow them to press their position in the collective bargaining process just as the Players Association has the right to strike (a right which the USSF believes they have already exercised)."

Sending a replacement team to Trinidad would be a bold move indeed considering that reaching the World Cup can be worth millions – even tens of millions – of dollars to a national soccer federation.

Mark Levinstein the Washington-based attorney who represents the men's players association declined comment. U.S. national coach Bruce Arena is out of the country and could not be reached.

It is not the first time U.S. Soccer has had labor problems with its men's players. In 1993 the federation nearly sent a replacement team to the Copa America tournament in Uruguay and in October 1996 it did just that for an international friendly in Peru two weeks before World Cup qualifying began. The regulars ultimately decided to play in qualifying and an agreement was reached the following year.