MLS Plots Ambitious Course Under New Labor Agreement
Durbin was instrumental during the collective bargaining agreement negotiations and now will play a key role in shaping the league under the new deal, which was signed just a few days before the 2010 season was scheduled to kick off.
Recently, Durbin sat down with FanHouse in his New York City office, shared the league's vision for the next five years and addressed both the contentious labor negotiations and some of the criticisms that have been raised regarding the quality of play in year 15. He was joined by MLS Director of Communications Will Kuhns. A (slightly) abridged transcript of the wide-ranging conversation follows:
FANHOUSE: When you look back on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations, were you always certain something would get done? I think a lot of us were thinking that this was just the way these things go, that it drags on until the very end and then everyone realizes the deadline is tangible and both sides kick in and they get it finished. Or was there really sort of a sense that it go either way?
DURBIN: Yes, that sense was there. There was real uncertainty as to whether or not the season was going to start on time. We had some significant philosophical issues that we had to try to find a way to resolve with the union. And if we couldn't find a way to resolve them, or find some way to compromise in certain situations, I don't think the season would have started on time.
FANHOUSE: What was the biggest concession you made?
DURBIN: I don't like to characterize them as one being more significant than the other. To me, you have to look at the CBA as an entire package. Everything's interrelated ... I actually think it is not constructive to try to splice it out piece-by-piece and say, "We won this one, they won that one."
FANHOUSE: Can't the players walk away from this, though, and point to ways in which their situation has improved?
DURBIN: Absolutely, so let's talk about those. One is, we've increased and changed our obligation with regards to guaranteed contracts. In the past we had no obligation to guarantee any player's contract, and now we do ... after a certain age and a certain number of years of service. So those players know now that when they sign, they're with us for the initial term of the agreement. That was significant.
We reduced the number of options and locked in the number of options. Before there was no limit on the number of options you could have, and now we've limited it to three for players at the beginning of their careers. And for players in the later stages of their career, you can have no more than two options.
And then probably one of the most significant things that we did is that we modified the way in which the league and the teams manage player rights when players are out of contract. This is this issue of "right of first refusal" that you always hear about. That was, I believe, an important issue to the players. We worked very hard to try to find ways to listen to their concerns and solve that tissue. What we ultimately came up with was a system that basically says that for players that didn't have their options exercised, or who had played out their contract, that for those players -- again, there's an age and years of service component to it -- but for those players, that the team would no longer have the unilateral ability to go to them and ask them to take a reduction in pay or not honor their option and ask them to take a reduction in pay.
Now the way it's going to work going forward is that if you don't exercise the player's option, that player will be made available to all teams at his option price.
FANHOUSE: In the end-of-season draft.
DURBIN: Correct. Or if the evaluation of the league and the team is that the player needs to have a reduction in pay, then rather that be a discussion just between the league, the team and the player, the player will have the option to make his services available to all teams at his last salary.
One of the things I ask people to think about is, when we sign a player,how is that player getting from outside the world of MLS onto an MLS team? It's actually very straight forward. We have basically an ongoing draft for all fo these players. One is called the "discovery" and one is called the "allocation." For a returning player it's no differnet ... There's not a situation where a team has the ability to keep the player out of the league or stop his career. They've never had that ability in the past and they don't have that ability now.
What's normally happening is that we have a player that's returning or a player a team wants to sign. And there's another team that has the right of first refusal on him. There are two discussions that are happening simultaneously. One discussion that s happening is what level of compensation are we going to play the player. The second conversation that's happening is, the team that wants his services from his last team is having a discussion with his last team about, "How can I ensure that when you sign him up, I actually get his services."
What that really means is that theyr'e trying to trade for that No. 1 slot. I'm going to sign the player and force that issue to happen. Once you sign the player, this team has 48 hours to make a decision about what they're going to do. So, often times the delay is not his old team, the delay is actually the team that wants him is still in the negotiation phase for trying to get that top place in the priority order. They know at any time and I know at any time we can force the issue.
There is just no situation where one team is stopping or ending the career of player. It hasn't happened and it doesn't happen.
FANHOUSE: When you look down the road over the course of the five-year deal, you know your budget now. You have an expanded Designated Player rule in place. How do you go about improving the product now that you know what your budget is?
DURBIN: Until the CBA was finalized it's very difficult to really have any concrete strategic planning for the next five years. Until you know what your budgets are, what your minimum salaries are, whether you're going to have the ability to expand rosters, what charges are going to be for players, how allocation rules are going to work, how a [new] reserve division might play itself out.
The CBA is now done, and now we are turning to beginning to really have a serious examination of the product on the field and what we can do to continue to improve it. We never stop. Obviously we increased the number of designated players we can have, we added the 25th and 26th roster slots, so we're constantly examining the product on the field and constantly looking at ways to improve it.
FANHOUSE: Critics have said in the past that the regular season lacks the intensity of foreign leagues. Having only half of your teams make the playoffs will help that. In the past, players have advocated for bonuses as well.
DURBIN: Through the CBA we've actually increased the win bonus. It was at $2,750 for the team for each win. Now it's been moved up to $4,500 for the team to divide among themselves. We pay that real time so they don't have to wait until the end of the year to get that.
It's exactly the point you made. When you're in a situation where you go from eight of 10 teams making the playoffs to eight of 16, and eight of 18 next year, you look at where you are at the end of the year and how tight the race is, you absolutely know today that the point or three points you get today or lose today, not maybe, but will be the differnce between whether your playing in the postseason or not.
FANHOUSE: There seems to be a perception out there that there's been a net loss this year in terms of player quality. More names that people recognize that have left the league than arrived. Fans see Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Ricardo Clark, Stuart Holden, Chris Rolfe, and others depart, and they haven't been replaced by familiar players.
KUHNS: That's the thing. A lot of the players we bring in aren't familiar, such as Luciano Emilio, until they score 17 goals. Freddy Montero. Juan Pablo Angel.
FANHOUSE: The perception still exists though. Do you make decisions to counter those perceptions, or do you focus on saying "Trust us, these players are good. You'll see."
DURBIN: I don't think we've taken a step backward in terms of the quality on the field. Players leaving a league and entering a league is a dynamic that's common throughout the world. It's not unique to MLS. So Chris Rolfe may leave, but Troy Perkins comes back. Until some of the new players we've brought in have a chance to demonstrate their ability, I think it's too soon for anyone to say in a meaningful way where the product quality is.
One of the things we examine is, you look at all the stars. Look at the players that were all-league. Look at the team award winners. That's not a perfect metric, but I think you'll find, and we do this, but the vast majority of those players are returning every year. We don't want to lose Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. But we keep far more players of importance than we lose, and we sign the vast majority of important young players every year.
FANHOUSE: People understand when Holden leaves for Bolton. But what I don't think the American fan understands is losing players to Denmark and Norway. How is MLS losing players to clubs nobody's heard of in leagues that are never on TV? Aren't these the leagues that should be feeding MLS?
DURBIN: I hear that and I view it differently. What I see happening is that we're making an evaluation of what we think the appropriate level of player compensation is. We don't want to lose players to Norway or Denmark. Of course not. But for us, the question really is, are we making a fair and appropriate contract offer for these players? And I believe we are, and I think the reason you know we are is not because we're losing the players,but many of those players are returning. Pat Noonan came back [from Norway]. Nate Jaqua came back [from Austria]. Joseph Ngwenya is coming back [from Turkey].
FANHOUSE: You may be evaluating the player's intrinsic worth accurately, but if the perception among fans of where MLS stands in the global pecking order falls when a player leaves for Denmark, isn't that worth something as well?
DURBIN: When you have 385 players in the league, we're hardly a feeder league to Scandinavia when you look at the numbers that are going, and then they're coming back. My question is, who's feeding who? You can say we're feeding them, but I can easily argue that they're feeding us because of the players that are coming back.
I've also had situations where, and I hope people understand this, where we've gone to players that are heading overseas and that we're trying to sign for the first time -- young players heading overseas -- and they say to me, "It's really not about the money. What I want to do is to have the experience of playing in Europe." When people say we're losing players, one thing I ask them to think about is that at some level, this is just a lifestyle change that players are looking for.
FANHOUSE: Two other matters of perception I'd like you to address: The dwindling number of MLS players in regular rotation for the national team, and the performance in the CONCACAF Champions League. Both of these are things that people can point to and say "This league isn't where it should be." Could you discuss each of them?
DURBIN: Clearly the Champions League is an important one for us. One of our strategic goals going forward is to win the Champions League and be consistently at the top of that tournament. I'm not concerned. If you look at where we are today, save Mexico, I think our teams are performing well.
FANHOUSE: MLS won two games in the first season [of the revamped Champions League]. It was a debacle.
DURBIN: I'm saying last year [2009-10], in terms of how we performed. I think we demonstrated where we are. [MLS clubs went 7-10-9 in the recently completed Champions League. Columbus (2-3-3) advanced to the quarterfinals.] We have challenges. It's very crowded in the middle of our seasons, obviously. We're looking at ways to address that in terms of scheduling. There's strains on rosters and we're looking at ways to address that for teams that are participating.
FANHOUSE: To be fair, the home-and-away format makes it tough. The national team can't win in Mexico either.
DURBIN: Absolutely. It's a difficult, difficult place to play. But it's important to us. We're still a relatively young league and that is one of our strategic goals.
FANHOUSE: Give me one or two things you can do under the new CBA to help teams play better in international competition.
DURBIN: We're examining that. One of the things we're thinking about is potentially increasing the roster size for teams that participate in the Champions League so that they could add some additional players that could help them [for that season].
FANHOUSE: Would they get a salary budget increase as well?
DURBIN: That's one of the things we're examining. The other thing, which is going to be easier as we have more of our own stadiums, is making sure that they way we're scheduling the competition at that time is opening it up for them, so they have time to rest. And this obviously is an issue with U.S. Soccer, but there are ways that we can work on the U.S. Open Cup schedule as well, to help take away some of the pressure.
FANHOUSE: What is your interest in boosting the popularity of the Open Cup?
DURBIN: We are committed to entering it.
FANHOUSE: If you're committed to entering it, then it is worth the effort to help raise the profile, or is that U.S. Soccer's turf? Have you exchanged any ideas?
DURBIN: I think we're both committed to the tournament and raising its profile. We've looked at different ideas. One of the challenges we have, and it's just the nature of our sport, is the crowded calendar. We're not on the international calendar and when you start introducing other tournaments it just gets very, very crowded. Trying to find a consistent place to play the Open Cup isn't easy, but clearly it's something we're absolutely committed to.
FANHOUSE: And the national team issue. Since MLS started, we're going to see the fewest number of MLS players representing the U.S. at the World Cup. Is that a sign of anything? [There were 16 in 1998, 11 in 2002 and 11 in 2006.]
DURBIN: As important as the national team's success is to the sport in this country, it's important that the league move forward and stand on its own two feet. I don't think the number of players that we have playing for the national team is indicative of the quality of the league. I've been here since the league's inception and I firmly believe the quality has gotten better every year.
KUHNS: It's also a function of the opportunity that's available to the American player because of the regard for MLS. Because Europe is now aware that we have a legitimate professional league, they're scouting our players and offering more jobs.
DURBIN: A number of the [national team] players have had some MLS experience. We do have a significant presence on that team in terms of the formation and the critical years for those players. Where players are is cyclical. I think the national team has more players in Europe today. I can just as easily see a situation four years from now where there are more players from MLS, then it cycles back to Europe again. It's just a function of timing.
FANHOUSE: Is there a notion, and obviously you have Mexico in the mix, that MLS should be the destination league for the best players from Central America and throughout the region? That we should see MLS players playing for national teams throughout CONCACAF? You're not going to get the best young Italians, but can't you try to get the best young Costa Ricans?
DURBIN: That's absolutely something we're looking at. Since we want to be the premier league in the region, we have to make sure the best players in the region are playing here. That requires us being smart and nimble and making sure that we're doing what we can to attract those players.
FANHOUSE: Have you increased your efforts to scout and make contacts in those countries?
DURBIN: We started that in South America, and one of the big initiatives we see happening this year is expanding that effort beyond where we are in Argentina and Colombia. We've had success in our relationship with the consultant that we use down there. One of the things I see happening this year is an expansion of that into Central America, into Mexico, into Asia.
FANHOUSE: Asia? Is that worth the money?
DURBIN: Absolutely. We want to be global. We need to be every place. We need to be in Africa, Europe. I believe we need to spend more resources in our own region, no question. But I don't think we should ignore any place in the world.