MLS players say they're unified in labor talks

SEATTLE — Kasey Keller wants to make sure fans who hear about a possible strike in Major League Soccer understand the current standoff is about player rights and not salaries.

"This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they're trying to live out the dream," Keller said on Friday.

The Seattle Sounders goalkeeper said he wasn't surprised when the MLS Players Union announced Thursday it voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by March 25, when the Sounders host expansion Philadelphia in the league opener.

The league's first collective bargaining agreement, a five-year deal, originally was set to run out Jan. 31 but was extended twice while negotiations continued. It expired Feb. 25 after the MLS Players Union refused another extension.

Negotiators for management and players met Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in talks convened by George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

All the players are asking for are rights players have in other leagues around the world, Keller said. He understands that when the previous deal was agreed to, players needed to make concessions to keep the league going.

Now that the league has a solid base and is expanding into new markets, and Keller said it's time for the players to get some of those concessions back.

"I understand where the league was coming from five, 10 years ago when it was up against the wall if we were going to still have a league," Keller said. "That's now no longer the case and some of the things they were able to get away with just can't happen anymore."

Keller has been on teams in the top leagues in Europe — the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain and living in a castle while playing in Germany's Bundesliga. Keller spent the 2007-08 season playing with Fulham in the EPL, but found himself mostly in a reserve role.

Unhappy with the single-entity structure that has seen the league negotiate all contracts since play began in 1996, players want greater free-agent rights and a higher percentage of guaranteed deals.

Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median — the point at which an equal amount make above and below — was $88,000 for 323 players listed.

"It's something that everyone needs to realize that this thing being positive for the players in the end is positive for the league, which in the end is positive for the owners," said Seattle's Peter Vagenas, about to begin his 11th MLS season. "Because quite frankly the rest of the world looks at some of the rules and regulations we abide by and it sort of adds to the stereotype of this league not being top quality."

The threat of a strike comes as the Philadelphia Union, the league's 16th team, is set to start play at Seattle in the league opener. While Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., is to open with an exhibition between New York and Brazil's Santos on March 20, a strike would postpone the first league match at the $200 million soccer-specific stadium, against Chicago on March 27.

Earlier this week, Seattle's designated player, Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg, said when he flew over from Europe to join the Sounders preseason training in early February he was told a deal was imminent.

Both Keller, 40, and Vagenas say they remain optimistic something will get settled before the Sounders are supposed to take the field in less than two weeks against Philadelphia. But they also insist the players are united in making sure they receive what they believe is a fair deal.

"I'm quite frankly shocked to see it still at this point with the league still dragging its feet," Vagenas said. "We're very much behind the rest of the world, rest of the leagues in terms of players rights. ... We understand the sport in this country isn't the NFL, but at the same time there are certain rights players should have and we don't have."