The uncertain future of the Major Soccer League seemed less so yesterday, as owners and the players union appeared ready to negotiate the non-negotiable.
Commissioner Earl Foreman, who on July 25 presented the players with a series of rollbacks in the form of an ultimatum, said a teleconference among the owners would be held Monday at 3 p.m.
After telling the players that the July 25 offer was not negotiable, Foreman said through MSL spokesman John Griffin yesterday that the owners would discuss a counterproposal presented by players association executive director John Kerr.
Meanwhile, Kerr, who had rejected the owners' proposal Thursday morning before submitting the counteroffer Thursday night, found his support among the rank and file eroding.
Players from four teams -- the Baltimore Blast, Tacoma Stars, Cleveland Crunch and San Diego Sockers -- faxed letters to the league office in Overland Park, Kan., saying they accepted the owners' proposal. Foreman, in Dallas to try to restart that franchise, had verbal assurances from players there that they would accept the owners' rollbacks, Griffin said.
"I'm not surprised," said Kerr from the union's Washington office yesterday. "These players are under tremendous pressure. They were told to accept [the rollbacks] or they would not only lose their jobs, they would lose their industry."
He said his counterproposal was not much different from the owners' demands.
"Isn't it something they can accept?" he asked. "There is is plenty of room to negotiate."
That is exactly what the owners said they would not do when they presented the demands. Foreman and Blast owner Ed Hale, who wrote the proposal, said it must be accepted by Aug. 1 or the league would fold. Foreman's call for a Monday conference call to discuss Kerr's offer appears to contradict that.
Blast player representative Rusty Troy said yesterday that he informed the MSL office the Baltimore players had voted, 13-5, to accept the rollbacks. It was his first opportunity to express the players' feelings, he said. The union had not asked.
"We [the player representatives] did not vote," said Troy. "My vote was not taken, and he [Kerr] never said, 'I need Baltimore's vote.' I was rarely talked to, and they never once asked me how Baltimore felt.
"I just took the vote myself."
Tacoma player representative Neil Megson said he told Will Bray, Kerr's assistant, the players wanted to vote on the offer.
"He said: 'You can't. You are not having a vote. You put the power into the player reps.' "
Said Megson: "This must be the only union where the members don't get to vote."
Troy said the player reps believed Kerr was going to accept the owners' deal. And so Kerr's rejection, which brought the MSL to the brink of extinction, surprised him.
"He told us, 'Look, gentlemen. We know we are going to have to accept [the rollback in the salary cap and the roster size]. I will try to get the best deal for the players on other matters.' "
According to Troy, Kerr was charged with two things: get the game fines reduced or eliminated and make sure teams released players quickly at the end of the MSL season so they could play for outdoor leagues.
"He was just supposed to get us a little relief in other areas."
Kerr's counterproposal does address those issues, but it also includes new figures for the salary cap ($550,000 plus $50,000 for developmental players, compared with $525,000 plus $25,000 proposed by the owners) and the letter of credit that protects the players in the event a team folds ($325,000 of the $350,000 proposed by the owners would be earmarked for player salaries only).
There was also language in Kerr's proposal that would grant free agency to players who refused to take the 5.5 percent cut in their contract proposed by the owners. And, though the owners proposed no minimum salary, Kerr proposed a $60,000 maximum instead. The average player salary last season was $35,000.
"The players association has not handled this well," said Troy. "Now, the owners know that the players will accept, and they are not going to budge. All of this needs to be quickly taken care of in the best fashion."
Megson was less polite.
"It is making us all look like we're stupid, like we'd rather fold it in. Actually, this is the union and a couple of loudmouth reps."