By Ben Wright, editor.
In the best of circumstances, negotiations can be difficult and tense. In the middle of a global pandemic and economic recession, negotiations between the United Soccer League and the newly formed USL Player's Association have been messy, to put it lightly.
The USL suspended their season on March 12, and in an ecosystem that counts on matchday earnings for a large percentage of its overall earnings, the league proposed blanket paycuts to players on May 9. As reported by The Athletic's Jeff Rueter, those proposed cuts were not well received by players, many of whom already earn stunningly low wages. Jason Weintraub reported a player in the USL Championship was offered a "zero dollar contract, shared housing and the opportunity to earn money through things such as community appearances, camps, coaching, etc." This contract offer was made at the start of the 2020 season.
“Their initial proposal was nigh-on embarrassing," a current player who asked not to be named told Speedway Soccer. "It was insulting to the players. There are a lot of players around the league on low contracts anyway."
The USLPA rejected the leagues initial proposal on May 19, countering with a proposal that would limit paycuts to 10% only for players earning above $2,000 a month, on the condition that the league would match those cuts, a minimum salary of $20,000 a year starting in 2021, and bargaining every 14 days until a Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached.
The league rejected the players' counterproposal, with a new proposal that included a 30% paycut every dollar earned over $1,500 a month and a severance pay covering just two weeks (Rueter's story covers the proposal in great detail).
“We want to play our part in this crisis too, so we offered something is affordable (less than what MLS offered) and tried to get something in return in the future, knowing how strong the owners of the league are, how strong NuRock Holdings is," said the player. "We just still seem miles apart.”
"Due to the nature of the USL’s original offer and our counteroffer, there is a lot of room for communication regarding any potential agreement," a spokesperson for the USLPA told Speedway Soccer. "Both parties are continuing to communicate with each other, and the USLPA remains committed to ensuring our players can continue to serve both their clubs and communities."
While Major League Soccer is seemingly moving towards a return to play, details on how and when the USL could resume the season have been scarce.
“In my opinion they know that we can’t play [this season], and this is their final push to save a few more pennies," said the player. "I don’t see a way we can play. I think the whole bottle‘s been thrown out the window. Any games we play now are just an additional loss to the owners.”
Both the USLPA and the player we spoke with are eager to return to the field, but questions remain about how and when the USL will be able to finish the season.
"At this point, our Players are ready to return to play in the healthiest and safest way possible," added a spokesperson for the USLPA. "The USLPA is highly committed to ensuring that both the safety and stability of our Players is protected."
"[Two weeks severance pay] just tells you they have no interest in playing this season," said the player. "Why else would they put that in? Let’s be honest, we’re never going to sign an agreement with two weeks severance. We believe that our contracts are legally binding. We want to play. Our owners want to play, our supporters want us to play. There’s a disconnect between the league, owners and the players.”
When asked to comment for this story, a USL spokesperson declined and referenced the league's earlier statement:
In a league that has stated ambitions of being "one of the top second divisions in the world", the COVID-19 crisis has shed light on how fragile the league ecosystem is. It has also magnified the need for players to earn livable wages. As the CBA negotiations continue, players are hopeful that it will result in a step forward for the league. “We obviously need to be strong in this. We’re fighting for the right things, and hopefully it can change the league for a positive going forward. If we were bullied to accept what they initially offered, I don’t think the league takes the right steps forward.”