U.S. federation, union try again on contract

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Fernando Clavijo first became associated with the U.S. national team in 1990, the year it qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years, money was not the point.

"There was no money," said Clavijo, now the coach of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids. "The federation had no money. The players had no money. One day the North American Soccer League had 24 teams, and the next day there was nothing."

Today, when the U.S. Soccer Federation and the players union meet in Chicago and again attempt to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, the discussion will be all about money.

The impasse between the two sides came to a head in December when players failed to show up for a scheduled training session. That action planted a seed of uncertainty that the USSF says it cannot tolerate.

Should the team fail to appear for a scheduled qualifying match, its participation in not only the 2006 World Cup, but also the 2010 Cup could be jeopardized.

Last Monday, the players' boycott became a lockout when the USSF decided to move ahead and invite non-union players from the United Soccer Leagues and the Major Indoor Soccer League to begin training for the Feb. 9 Cup qualifying game on the road against Trinidad and Tobago.

The USSF has said it will use the replacement players if an agreement isn't reached by Feb. 1.

With that in mind, both sides will meet with a mediator, who seems to have his work cut out for him.

The USSF said it has offered the players a contract, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2003, that would raise their salaries 38 percent. For national team duties, top players currently earn from $75,000 up to $200,000-plus.

The U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association, headed by Washington attorney Mark Levinstein, said, based on the payout, the raise is actually 20 percent and amounts to about 4 percent a year.

"Our theory is if the players do well, players should get raises," said Levinstein. "The way it is now, the MLS gets all the money. The USSF board is controlled by MLS, and they want to take all the money for the for-profit league."

The arguments degenerate from there. Nearly everything said by one side is called untrue or nonsense by the other.

"There are always two sides," said Clavijo, who at age 38 started and played the full 90 minutes in the United States' historic upset of Colombia in the 1994 World Cup.

"But I think players today cannot forget where we are. We are not the No. 1 sport. We have to be careful. Our sport is still delicate. And this contract is important because it could impact soccer for the rest of our lifetimes."

Already there has been talk of writing off the 2006 World Cup by using replacement players and accepting the idea that the United States might not qualify for the tournament this year after playing in the past four.

"What's happening now could be a great reversal and change the way we are looked at," Clavijo said. "It would be devastating for American soccer because FIFA, the international sanctioning body, would not look at it with a fond eye. I don't think our players union is looking at that."

The union is seeking to more than double its current compensation package. Its last offer included a 108 percent raise.

On the union's Web site, Levinstein said the majority of the players on the men's national team do not earn close to the minimum salaries for rookies in the NHL, NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball.

In a phone conversation this week, Levinstein said he is trying to educate the public.

"Less than 7 percent of revenue earned from [national team] games goes to the players," he said. "It's important to know they're not making any significant money. Some people think you should play for nothing."

Jim Moorhouse, the USSF spokesman, sounding beleaguered, said he, too, is trying to keep the record straight.

"We're a not-for-profit organization," he said Tuesday. "I keep saying that. If we give in to their demands, what programs are we going to cut?

"Yes, we have a $30 million reserve, up from a $4 million deficit in 2000. But it is not the job of the USSF to make up the difference in salaries between what our players make and what pros make. We are a national team. You are selected to be on it. You are not paid a salary; you are compensated based on performance."

From 1999 to 2002, 31 players made more than $75,000 in one year and 23 made more than $200,000 a year, Moorhouse said, adding, "and the national team is not their main source of income."

All of it leaves fans and ex-national team players in a quandary.

Clavijo and Alexi Lalas, two outstanding defenders from a different era, demonstrate how hard it is to find common ground. While Clavijo urges the players union to think about what it's doing, Lalas, perhaps the most recognizable man ever in a U.S. national team uniform, described the current labor strife as a logical, if difficult, progression that all sports must take.

"It's true players are much better off than ever," said the retired defender, who is now the president and general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes. "But it's also true that the payoff must be equitable."

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