USL players feel disrespected and disappointed in negotiations with the league

The past ten days have been filled with discussions regarding a player pay cut in the USL Championship, beginning with Jeff Rueter’s May 9th article in The Athletic. Since then, the USL Players Association released a statement that includes some counter-proposal details accompanied by the hashtag #IStandWithThePlayers across Twitter and Instagram. That was followed by a statement from USL HQ. Now, there has been a counter from the USL sent to the USLPA, as first reported by Soc Takes and delved into by The Athletic’s Rueter. Shortly after that news broke, BGN spoke directly to the USLPA, conducting their first-ever negotiations.

In regards to the perception that the players association and the league are not at all on the same page, the USLPA stated, “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. 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.”

Does the USLPA expect the league to use the collective bargaining agreement as a trump card to force a resolution on these negotiations? “Not necessarily. We have been working together to negotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement with USL for quite some time. We believe a CBA benefits all parties as we try to grow the sport together,” they answered.

On the opposite side, they discussed if they will demand a resolution before getting back on the pitch for matches. “At this point, our players are ready to return to play in the healthiest and safest way possible. The USLPA is highly committed to ensuring that both the safety and stability of our players is protected,” the USLPA said.

With their finances and livelihood in flux, BGN talked to players, inside and outside of the USLPA, across the league shortly after the latest counter-proposal from the league was received.

Negotiations are rarely sunshine and rainbows, and these talks are no different as the players definitely feel underappreciated by the league they play in. One player stated, “The league is showing they have no true regard for the players’ well being. With players’ livelihoods on the line, the fact that they want us to take a pay cut more than MLS and provide no security if they cancel the season is a slap in the face. Players are the biggest assets to the league. We need to stay united, not just as players but fans, owners, and everyone who supports us.” Another added that “their initial proposal was nigh-on embarrassing. It was insulting to the players. There are a lot of players around the league on low contracts anyway.”

Typically athletes live by a code to not “pocket-watch”, which essentially means focusing on another player’s money. But players know when the dollars don’t make sense for themselves or another player in the league. “There are players that make close to nothing and live paycheck to paycheck. I guarantee you there are players in this league that do not have enough money saved to take care of them and their families. Players, therefore, rely on their full monthly checks to make a living and it will be detrimental if any sort of pay cut is implemented by the league,” one player told BGN.

“I feel like the league is prioritizing money over the needs of players during a pandemic,” another player said.

BGN’s Jason Weintraub tweeted some eye-catching information regarding player pay, as well as club-provided meals.

We also heard from a player that was offered a $350 per month contract. He said, “As a young player I feel like giving up on my soccer career and working in the field of my major. The monthly wage isn’t enough with room. I have student loans.”

Despite a majority of the league’s players making five figures, they have shown a willingness to give up some money for the good of the USL during this COVID-19 pandemic. “We want to play our part in this crisis too, so we offered something 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. We just still seem miles apart,” one player said, as another stated, “As players, we are willing to give up some of our already low wages in order to continue to give stability to the league.”

Multiple players reiterated that above all else, they just want to get back on the pitch and play the sport they love. But, even though clubs recently returned on a limited basis to the training pitch, there is skepticism about a viable return to matches in 2020.

“In my opinion, they know that we can’t play [this season], and this is their final push to save a few more pennies. 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. [USL] has absolutely not come forward with a plan. There’s nothing in place. They haven’t come forward with any ideas. They’ve spoken about regional stuff, but nothing has been put on the table. It’s all word of mouth.”

That same player added, “[Two weeks severance pay] just tells you they have no interest in playing this season. 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.”

Regarding those owners, a lot of the players that spoke to BGN had positive things to say about their specific club’s ownership during these difficult times, the opposite of their feelings toward the league at the moment.

A Saint Louis FC player said, “In Saint Louis specifically, our ownership has done a fantastic job of taking care of us and we know everyone is in a tough situation during these unprecedented times.” One of his teammates said, “Even though I’ve only been at STLFC for a short time, the professionalism and care the ownership have given us has been great to see.”

Other players were quick to give credit to their club’s owner, too. “Our owners and staff here have continued to show us nothing but support. They want nothing more than to have this season start back up and eventually fill those stands with our amazing fans,” a player told BGN.

Another said, “I feel like the owners have been fine, especially in [my city]. There’s a huge disconnect between the owners and the league. It’s a three-way thing where the league is saying one thing, the owners are like, ‘we’re not sure’ and the players are like ‘no’. No one is aligned.” He also added, “I feel for the owners. They pay expansion fees, they pay to play in the league every year. The league profits every year, while the owners are constantly paying for everything and the owners are losing money while the league racks up millions and millions.”

Part of that trust with the owners relates to the proposal from the USLPA for the league to give the equivalent of the player pay cuts to the clubs. A USLPA source told BGN that the league’s latest counter has not shown any willingness to meet that demand.

The USLPA definitely arrived at the right time to represent players across the league. “The USLPA has done an unbelievable job supporting us throughout this entire event. They have worked extremely hard and on their own dime to have us, the players, best interests. Extremely grateful for that,” one player told BGN. Another said, “We want to play and the USLPA has done a fantastic job representing us and we are extremely united as one voice. In (my city) specifically, our ownership has done a fantastic job of taking care of us and we know everyone is in a tough situation during these unprecedented times. During these unprecedented times, the USLPA has done a great job behind the scenes, now giving the players a voice as we come together as one.”

Another player stated, “If we didn’t have the USLPA, it would be a mess… It would have been the players vs each individual club. We would have been dealing with them without this safety net.”

These current negotiations are obviously important right now, but it could be even more important for the future. One player told BGN, “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’re giving, I don’t think the league takes the right steps forward.”

When BGN contacted the USL, a league spokesperson referred to the league’s statement from Tuesday night and declined to comment further.