Labour Lifeline: A look at the new MLS CBA and how it affects the Vancouver Whitecaps

Early Thursday morning, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the MLS and the MLS Players Association (MLSPA), putting any worries of a potential labour stoppage to rest. Here is how the deal shaped up, and how it stands to impact the Vancouver Whitecaps in the short and long term future.

They locked things down, avoiding a lockout.

After starting negotiations nearly 2 years ago, the MLSPA and the MLS came to an agreement on a new CBA on Thursday, avoiding any sort of labour disruption for the 2020 season. It’s been a long process, with both the MLSPA and MLS spending several months of intense discussions attempting to find common ground on many key issues. 

And after years of talk, speculation, and everything in between, they found level ground on which they can both be happy this week, avoiding the potential of labour strife for another half-decade. 

“I think they (MLSPA) worked on this CBA tirelessly for 2 and a half years to make sure that it didn’t happen again,” current Whitecaps MLSPA representative Jake Nerwinski said on Thursday. “And we got most of the things that we wanted, and I think they did a great job of it.”

Heading into MLS’s 25th anniversary season, with several new marquee signings dotting the rosters of teams both big and small around the league, the last thing they needed was to miss any crucial games, so in that sense, having a new deal is a win for both sides.

Within the deal itself, there is a lot to be happy with from a players standpoint, as they got many of the concessions they were hoping for, and in the cases where they didn’t get all that they wanted, they were offered pretty solid alternatives, as the compromises were usually due to monetary issues. 

While a dream scenario would have been to significantly increase the high salary cap, removing mechanisms such as DPs, GAM and TAM completely, along with the addition of unlimited charter flights and a very unrestricted free agency, that wasn’t possible within the still very much green economic nature of MLS, making the compromises reached rather fair in the grand scheme of things.

If anything, the one big complaint someone could have in that the deal came about rather last minute, which as we will explore here, affects teams in their quest to build their rosters, but considering that this deal was reached earlier than the last 2 CBA negotiations both ended up being, things could have been worse. 

From the perspective of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it makes things real interesting heading into the start of the season, which gets underway for them in just over 3 weeks. With the new salary increases, things just got even more flexible for Axel Schuster and Marc Dos Santos, who aren’t quite yet finished signing all of their new players.

Charter Flights

The big talking point heading into negotiations was surrounding the charter flight question, a topic that seemed to reach a boiling point this season, with what felt like an unprecedented amount of flight delays, cancellations and other travel-related issues dogging a number of teams. 

With MLS only allowing up to 4 charter flights per team, with no minimum amount of charters required per team, some clubs were less stingy than others with how they travelled, much to the chagrin of the players.

“We had some crazy travel delays last year,” Nerwinski said. “We were stuck, we were delayed almost every single trip, and I think that does take a toll on you, mentally and physically, more mentally that time, because we were fired up. Yeah, it definitely takes a toll. The new parameters we put in are definitely going to help, it’s going to get better and better for players across the board.”

Now, teams are required to use 8 charter flight legs per season, starting in 2020, with the number of flights increasing each year until 2024, when the required amount will be 16 legs. That’s huge, especially for teams like the Whitecaps, who have to fly significant distances just to reach 65% of their league opponents. 

It’s not quite the wholesale charter flight concession that the union was hoping for, but it’s a big step, especially with all MLS Playoffs games and CONCACAF Champions League (but only against non-Canadian and American opponents) also requiring mandatory charters, which is huge for teams who make it that far. 

So now, expect those horror tales of MLS travel’s past to slowly fade into obscurity. We might still hear a few, with charters not quite implemented across the board, but things are getting better, which for a league looking to eventually compete with the best in the world, is a start. 

For Nerwinski, that means no more interesting interactions with airlines when things do go south, something he won’t really miss.

“I can’t remember what airline it was, but they gave us a 10 dollar voucher, so you can get one snack, or maybe one water bottle that’s $7.50, and you get a stick of gum,” he said with a laugh.

What will be curious now is how things develop in the upcoming years, as one under-the-radar issue that will surely pop up is on the environmental side of things, with planes being a pretty high source of pollution. It’s an issue we’re starting to see rumbles of in Europe, with one high-profile example being Real Madrid flying a distance of around 20 to 30 minutes for a Copa Del Rey tie recently, causing a fair bit of outcry, but with MLS’s teams being so spread out, it isn’t something that is as talked about as much here.

Obviously a goal would be to make planes that operate on greener technology, making flights both long and short more eco-friendly, but until that happens, it will seem pointless to have charter flights for short distances such as Vancouver to Seattle. Teams will have every right to use those flights, as using them could offer a competitive edge in certain cases, especially in the fight to avoid injuries and fatigue, but it is a question that we may start to see cropping up more in the future. 

But that aside, it’s great news for the players, who were certainly impacted by the lack of rules around charter travel last year. Travelling long distances in cramped planes with multiple stopovers will work for someone going on vacation or on a business trip, but for athletes who are expected to push themselves to the limit, with sometimes little rest between games, those commercial flights can increase the risks of injury, something that both fans and players won’t mind avoiding in the future. 

The Whitecaps current MLSPA representative, Jake Nerwinski, has his fair share of MLS travel horror stories (Keveren Guillou)

New TV deals

Another important tidbit of information in this agreement is surrounding the new MLS media and TV deals, which are set to be renewed ahead of the 2023 season. For the first time ever, the players will stand to benefit from them, as the salary cap will be directly impacted by it, which in turn will put more cash in the players’ pockets. 

In other North American sports leagues, such as in the National Hockey League, TV deals are tied to the cap, which has led to massive increases in recent years, which is certainly an exciting prospect for MLS fans. 

The way that the sport is trending in North America, with the upcoming 2026 World Cup, without also mentioning that both Canada and the US have decent chances to make it in 2022, the year before the contract expires, means that a big TV deal could prove to be huge for the growth of the league. 

Instead of just divvying up the TV money between owners, reinvesting it into the players will improve the quality of play over time, which will make the owners more money. With a big reason for a salary cap being league stability, just having the players benefit from that potential pot of cash is going to be huge in a few years, which is why tying it to the TV deal may prove to be one of the more important concessions reached in this deal. 

Changes to roster construction

But despite a lot of the chatter surrounding charter flights, along with the importance of the upcoming TV deal, this is the big elephant in the room, as they say. CONCACAF Champions League action gets underway in less than 2 weeks, while MLS play kicks off about a week and a half after that, so it’s massive that all of the teams finally know what they’ll have to play around with in terms of filling out the holes in the rest of their rosters. 

While there were faint hopes of increasing the salary cap massively across the board, removing DPs, TAM (Target Allocation Money) and GAM (General Allocation Money), that was never going to happen, at least not yet. 

But there are some significant changes, starting with the DP rule, which was slightly modified. Teams will continue to have 2 true DPs, meaning that teams are allowed to have two players of any age eligible for an unlimited amount of compensation, with their salary charge counting as a maximum budget charge on a team’s cap. 

Where the change lies is in that 3rd DP, which teams are now encouraged to use on a U23 player. If they use it on a player that is less than 23 years of age, they won’t have any limits, but if the player is older, his budget charge cannot be higher than the maximum TAM threshold, which is the DP maximum + $1 000 000. (That threshold for 2020 currently sits at $1,612,500).

Speaking of TAM, the plan will be to slowly phase it out, with more and more of it becoming GAM each year. While they may both be quite similar, that will be a huge distinction, as TAM can only be used on the higher-earning players, whereas GAM can be used on anyone across the roster. 

By filtering all of the money towards GAM, they are still keeping the flexibility to bring ‘DP calibre’ players on non-DP contracts, while improving compensation for players across the board, especially for homegrowns and draftees, who were often screwed over most by the introduction of TAM.

Another change is the introduction of a U22 player initiative, which will start in 2021. The details are yet to be confirmed, but it will give the ability for teams to buy players 22 and under at a reduced cost, encouraging them to invest in players with sell-on value, which is a common theme in some of these changes, including the change in the 3rd DP. 

Elsewhere, the other significant change is to free agency, which was very complicated in the old CBA. Now, players 24 and older with 5 or more years of experience in MLS are eligible to move between clubs, a big improvement from the minimum 28 years old with 8 years of experience that was required before. 

Amidst the bigger changes, it doesn’t seem that significant, but it will give players more of a chance for freedom in choosing where they play, which Nerwinski says is a right that a lot of his peers fought hard to get. 

“When you ask some players around the league what the most important aspect of this bargaining was, it’s free agency,” Nerwinski said. “I think it’s huge that you knock down the years to only 24 now, with 5 years of experience, it’s right in the ballpark where we thought it should be.”

How it affects the Whitecaps

Unfortunately for Vancouver, it appears that Hwang In Beom will remain a DP under the new salary rules (Keveren Guillou)

While some of the changes don’t affect the team immediately, there are some changes that give the ‘Caps additional flexibility heading into opening kick. 

The first big one is the increase of the Salary Cap itself, which according to Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is set to increase by around $700 000 from last year. While a chunk of that will go to ensuring that players on the minimum salary and supplemental roster spots get the required raises in order to meet the new minimum salary distinctions, it’s still a solid overall increase. 

Especially with an increase of GAM, that difference could give Vancouver room to add one more player above the current DP threshold ($612 500), something they might not have been able to do a month ago, which is big. With a couple of holes still to fill in their squad, primarily in the form of another full back, 1 or 2 midfielders and maybe a centre back, having that extra flexibility will be important in these coming weeks. 

Unfortunately for the Whitecaps, not all is rosy, because despite an $80 000 increase to the maximum TAMable amount, pushing it to that figure of $1 612 500 that we mentioned earlier, they still cannot buy down any of their DPs, as confirmed by JJ Adams of The Province. It was hoped that Hwang In Beom, who is supposedly right up near the threshold, could be bought down with a new deal, but it looks like that he still remains over, even despite the increase. 

With a reported fee of $1.8 million dollars, along with his 2019 salary of $655 000, he would have been under this threshold if that fee were to be confirmed, but with fees not being disclosed in MLS, it’s entirely possible that the reported fee isn’t accurate, which would make him being over more understandable. He could also be over because of a salary increase, but we’ll find out about that in May, when the MLS player salaries are released, but it is nonetheless disappointing that they cannot pursue another DP as was originally hoped.

But otherwise, this additional flexibility should help them round up the rest of their squad now, with the new rules looking to help them in the future. As it stands, the Salary Cap stands to improve by around $500 000 each year, providing more space for teams to pursue higher calibre depth options, while also better compensating some of the players already in the fold. 

Also, with the new 2021 U22 rule, along with the U23 DP rule, the Whitecaps can use their new scouting department, which per JJ Adams is expected to be all rounded up by the summer, to start finding some guys that fit those requirements. With In Beom rumoured to be leaving as early as this summer, with fellow DP Ali Adnan’s long-term future equally as uncertain, planning out how to best fill that 3rd U23 DP spot in advance could pay dividends down the road. 

All-in-all, these changes won’t provide that much of a big change in the squad immediately, but as the deal progresses, starting with this summer, it will start to really shape teams’ decisions. For now, the immediate focus for the ‘Caps will be to fill out the squad, which this new CBA helps them do, but as for the big, big changes, don’t expect them to hit the ‘Caps until 2021 and beyond, potential sales of Adnan and In Beom permitting.

Looking Forward

It’s been a big day for MLS, who avoid the pain of a labour stoppage, while also taking another step towards growing as a league. With the start of the season just around the corner, it’s good to have some clarity in how teams will be able to shape and mould their rosters in the short term, while also getting a look into how things will look in the longer term. 

So now, expect a flurry of signings to start coming through, with some teams having especially threadbare squads at this present moment. The Whitecaps are surprisingly ahead of the curve in that regard, having done most of their shopping in January, but there is no team that is completely done wheeling-and-dealing, which for both fans and media, should mean an exciting next couple of weeks. 

New issues will arise in this CBA, no doubt, but with the security of a 5-year deal, they’ll have to boil over until then. In a period of crucial growth, the last thing they needed was an ugly and drawn-out labour fight that resulted in ugly fall back, so in that sense, it makes some of the concessions worth it. 

Speaking of growth, it’ll be interesting to see how the U22 player rule ends up playing out when announced, on top of how the new salary, GAM, TAM and DP provisions end up affecting the overall quality of the league. With that new golden carrot dangling in terms of the 2023 and 2024 salary cap increases being tied to a new deal, having those new rules improve the quality and reputation of MLS would be huge, so that will be definitely something worth following over these next couple of years. 

But now, with teams training camps ramping up, having the CBA sorted out is one less distraction to worry about, which heading into the leagues 25th season, will have people at the league office breathing a little easier. 

And overall, it appears to be giving the league another stone to step on in their quest to grow and move forward. How big of a step will this CBA end up being? It’s too early to tell, but upon first glance, there’s a lot to be positive about here. 

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