On the final match day in the 2013 MLS season, Brazilian striker Camilo Sanvezzo scored a hat trick for the Vancouver Whitecaps in their 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids, narrowly overtaking Mike Magee to claim the Golden Boot. Unsurprisingly, this piqued the interest of numerous teams interested in securing the services of the promising forward. Vancouver, however, had underwhelmed in 2013, and saw no reason to sell their most prized asset, who was still under contract for another year.
Camilo, who had been with the club since 2011, saw things differently. In short, Camilo received an offer from Mexican side Queretaro FC, who promised more money and didn't give even the tiniest of shits that he was still under contract with the Whitecaps. So the Brazilian left Vancouver and showed up in Mexico wearing a Queretaro jersey, much to the consternation of the Whitecaps and MLS.
After much negotiation and back-channeling, Vancouver did eventually receive a transfer fee, thought to be in the range of $2.2 million. And in a bit of karmic retribution, reports out of Mexico indicate that Camilo isn't getting paid at the moment, amidst Queretaro's financial troubles and a money laundering investigation of owner Amado Yáñez.
Nevermind the sneaky bullshit of it all, the Camilo saga brought attention to two unique and confusing issues behind the league's contracts; the "unilateral option" and the league's "single-entity" structure. The MLS has never been accused of excessive transparency or clarity when it comes to the specifics of transfers or contracts, and even some of the league owners have trouble fully understanding the fee structures and allocation process because it's all so damned convoluted.
The 2014 season, the last under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, kicks off this Saturday. With the deal expiring after this season, there will be a number of contentious issues to be ironed out over the next 9 months between MLS and the Players Union if a new deal, one reflecting the current state of the league and the business of soccer in general, is to be struck.
What exactly does the "unilateral option" mean? Basically, it means that once a player is under contract with MLS (not a specific team - more on that shortly), he has essentially no say in his destiny. A team may unilaterally exercise option years in the original contract, without further consent from the player. This is what the Whitecaps thought they had done when they exercised their contract option on Camilo back in November. Of course, Camilo's response was a hearty "fuck that", and now he's in Mexico.
So, the unilateral option sounds a bit, ahem, one-sided. How can this be allowed to work? Well, the MLS has a "single-entity" structure, meaning that all of its teams and players are part of a collective ownership. Owners are basically just league investors, and are given a specific team to run. In theory, this allows the league to keep costs low(er) and impose a bit of parity. Now, the unilateral option clause is one with a murky history within FIFA, but MLS can pull it off because the league, and not an individual team, executes the contracts with players. Loophole!
All of this is important because the MLS of 2014 and beyond bears very little resemblance to the MLS of antiquity under which these confusing contractual acrobatics were devised. Commissioner Don Garber has been extremely bullish on the growth of the league; we'll soon see the foreign-moneyed NYC Death Star FC and Beckham United take the field, and things appear to be well on track to achieve Garber's goal of having 24 teams by the end of the decade. Attendance numbers are decent, and the big names attached to recent expansions will help fill even more seats. What's more, the league finally exorcised the demon that was Chivas USA by purchasing the club from its comically inept ownership for $70 million. Detractors may point to this as a sign that the league isn't as financially stable as it ought to be, but the Chivas debacle was thankfully unique due to how poorly run the organization was. Hopefully the team will be sold to an ambitious ownership group capable of resurrecting it and competing with the Galaxy.
So how does the current MLS - a growing league sprinkled with international superstars in the twilight of their careers and American heroes plying their trade at home - reconcile its present status with somewhat obsolete contracts? On the issue of its single-entity structure, that's probably going to stay for a while. Garber is a big fan, and it's still necessary to keep the league's finances (or those of a particular team) from spiraling out of control. Sure, there are the perceived "haves" (RBNY, Galaxy, Sounders) and the "have-nots" (San Jose, DC United), but the disparity is not nearly as bad as it could be. Without the single-entity status, MLS could very well turn into a hegemonic cage match like, say, Spain's La Liga. Ditching single-entity would be the most Ayn Rand-ian way to go about things, but it could end up backfiring in the form of a half dozen teams going belly up. The MLS will eventually have to move away from its single-entity existence, but in the current era of expansion, that's unlikely to happen in the next few years.
Even more confusing is the issue of the unilateral option, and its future is less predictable. The Players Union will certainly fight hard for players to have more say in their contracts and the options therein, but the specifics (free agency?) of how that might play out are anyone's guess. As with all things, it eventually boils down to money. With all of the cash being thrown around for guys like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermain Defoe, it's easy to forget that just six years ago, the league's minimum salary was only $12,900. While that number was up to a much more respectable $37,500 last year, the gains in player salary are not really keeping pace with overall growth. Consider that the salary cap has increased by about 30 percent over the past five years. In that same time, however, the median salary has risen only 18 percent, to about $90,000.
These numbers will be at the heart of the CBA negotiations. A much higher salary cap will be a good thing for the league and especially for the players. But this leads to another can of worms, which is how the MLS is linked, unofficially but inexorably, with the development of soccer in America and the health of the USMNT. The argument against a higher cap is the minimum for American players on each team, and under a higher cap, teams will have to (theoretically) overpay for decent American talent. If a higher cap was coupled with a relaxed American player rule, it would allow a bit more meritocracy - the guys who aren't worthy of the new higher salary can go play in the NASL or USL Pro or Norway. This would be a win-win, because the Players Union gets a bigger slice of the pie, and the owners get more latitude and less red tape - ideally by easing regulations of signing foreign players - regarding how and where they spend their money.
The MLS is at a crossroads. If it continues to proceed with the cautious ambition it has demonstrated so far, there's no reason MLS can't expand successfully and become a formidable and respectable league worldwide. These negotiations can be an excellent opportunity for the league, not necessarily a shit storm. The next CBA can present the MLS as a league that is both financially stable, and in tune with its best assets - the players. But in order to do so, it must become more transparent. Back in 2010, negotiations got nasty over issues like guaranteed contracts and free agency, and it nearly led to a strike. This time around, the MLS can't allow things to get so out of hand. It must take a good look in the mirror, and mitigate any issues that might cause a player to flee for Mexico.