Major League Soccer's players association voted to ratify a new collective bargain agreement with the league Wednesday, clearing the way for MLS to become the first major league in the U.S. to come back from the coronavirus pandemic that shut down professional sports in March.
The deal includes significant economic concessions from both sides but removes the threat of a lockout, an action the owners had threatened to take this week.
"Today's vote also finalizes a plan to resume the 2020 season and provides players with certainty for the months ahead," the union said in a statement. "It allows our members to move forward and continue to compete in the game they love."
The vote will allow the league to go forward with a plan for all 26 teams to gather later this month in Orlando, Fla., where they would be quarantined at a Disney resort and play a televised tournament behind closed doors at ESPN's sprawling Wide World of Sports complex beginning in early July.
According to the Athletic, the deal nearly fell apart over the league's proposal that a force majeure clause tied to attendance decreases be added to the CBA. The union favored more standard language that would allow either side to back out of the CBA under unforeseen circumstances such as a global pandemic.
The union had previously approved a series of financial proposals including pay cuts of 7.5% across the player pool, a reduction in bonuses and changes in revenue sharing negotiated in the previous CBA, which was to run through 2024. The CBA approved Wednesday won't expire until 2025.
With an accord in place, the players are expected to report to Orlando later this month and would be quarantined from family and friends for up to six weeks. The players, who will be regularly tested for COVID-19, had several health and safety issues with the league's plan but were especially troubled by the length of the quarantine, which was originally expected to last as long as 10 weeks.
MLS compromised by shortening the tournament and the quarantine by a month. According to reports in the Athletic and elsewhere, the tournament would begin with a group stage that would see each team play between three and five games in a round-robin format with the top teams advancing to a knockout stage.
Wednesday's agreement makes MLS the first major U.S. league to reach a return-to-play deal with its players although the NBA and NHL could announce plans for a restart later this week. Major League Baseball appears far from a deal with its players.
The MLS players union, in its statement, acknowledged not only the toll COVID-19 has taken on the country but also the hurt and pain caused by a week of protests following the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer while in custody in Minneapolis.
"We recognize that we are all moving forward - as players, as fans, as societies, as a world - into a future that looks much different than the one we envisioned a few months ago," it read. "There are problems we face collectively that are both more urgent and more important than competing on the field. We are grieving, we are fed up, we expect change and we expect action.
"The change won't come on the field but it will come partly through the force and determination of all who seek justice and equality. We hope our return to the field will allow fans a momentary release and a semblance of normalcy."
The nine-team National Women's Soccer League last week announced it would begin its season June 27 in Utah with a 25-game tournament to be played in two empty stadiums in the Salt Lake City area.
MLS suspended its season March 12, with each team having played just two of its scheduled 34 regular-season games.
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