Major League Soccer and its players have signed a five-year labour contract that avoids a strike scheduled for next week.
The MLS Players Union had said it would strike if an agreement wasn't reached before March 25, when the expansion Philadelphia Union are to open the league schedule at Seattle.
"This can all be a positive relationship going forward," Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan said. "Going forward we're going to have a real relationship with the league as opposed to being combative at times."
Negotiators began intensive talks Thursday in Washington, D.C. A deal was signed shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday.
Union head Bob Foose said a majority of players will receive guaranteed contracts for the first time and there will be increased player rights within the league when contracts expire.
"From our perspective, these negotiations were always about players' rights," Foose said.
Talks went overnight until 2 a.m. Friday and began again at 8 a.m. Saturday, with players watching NCAA tournament games.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said the agreement was reached in an "evolutionary way rather than revolutionary way."
"This is a great way for Major League Soccer to start its season," Garber said.
Movement eased but no free agency
Management was opposed to free agency within MLS, which has negotiated all contracts on behalf of its teams since play began in 1996. MLS said players always had the option of signing with clubs overseas.
"Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements but they will not be free agents within the league," Garber said.
Instead, there will be a re-entry draft for players whose contracts end or whose options are declined.
"We think we have made some real improvements in players' ability to move," Foose said.
The union had said on March 11 that it was prepared to strike if an agreement wasn't reached before March 25. Player representatives, including league MVP Donovan, flew in to attend talks. The Los Angeles Galaxy star completed a 10-week loan to Everton last weekend and said he might return to England in the event of a strike.
"It was not fun. It was tiring," Garber said of the bargaining, "but it was very productive."
The talks were supervised by George H. Cohen, director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He said he tried to reach agreement on smaller issues to build momentum and get the sides to realize, "Western civilization does not hang in the balance."
Player income averaged $147,945 at the start of last season, according to the union. But the median — the salary which an equal number of players make more than or less than — was $88,000 for 323 players listed.
TFC were 1 of 2 clubs to profit last season
Garber said Seattle and Toronto were the only profitable MLS teams last year.
"We also collectively agreed that we need to grow our television ratings and attendance," Garber said. "Perhaps five years from now we have a league that's operating with all teams at a profit."
A joint player-management task force will come up with proposals to improve the league and player development.
"What I learned in this process is the players have some pretty darn good ideas," Garber said. "We'll try to find ways that we could make money together. We'll find ways that they could have a greater say in discipline."
A strike would have disrupted planning to some extent for the U.S. national team ahead of the World Cup in June. While most of the players on the 23-man roster are likely to be selected from European clubs, a delay in the start of the MLS season would have left the U.S.-based players with no regular-season matches to sharpen their skills ahead of the start of national team training camp in mid-May.
The league had notified the union that medical, dental and vision insurance would expire March 31 in the event of a strike, and players would have to continue coverage under the federal COBRA program, a U.S. law giving certain former employees, retirees, spouses and dependent children the right to temporary continuation of health coverage at group rates. Life insurance would also have ended on the start date of a strike, and players could covert to individual coverage.