The MLS Labor Nightmare No One Is Talking About

Refusing to pay training fees to youth club teams may inhibit MLS's longterm ability to grow into one of the top leagues in the world.

Feb 2 2015, 3:30pm

Image by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of crucial collective bargaining agreement negotiations, Major League Soccer officials are now facing another challenge that will test whether the league can become one of the best in the world anytime in the near future.

While much less publicized than CBA discussions, the case of Jamaican born defender Sergio Campbell, the 19th pick in the recent MLS SuperDraft, may prove just as important. It could determine the league's future ability to sign top young talent from around the world.

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Portmore United F.C., a youth team based in St. Catherine, Jamaica, is demanding that MLS pay $7,500 in training fees in order for them to allow the Columbus Crew draft pick to sign a contract for the upcoming season. Portmore, with whom Campbell trained as a youth, won't release the player's International Training Certificate—a document that establishes ownership of a player's rights—until some type of compensation is agreed upon.

Training fees are common and are paid by most every other league in the world. Those fees are essential for youth clubs to maintain operations. Yet MLS balks at paying training fees, claiming that U.S. Soccer mandates against paying training fees as a result of the country's strict child labor laws. MLS has never paid such fees.

However, according to FIFA regulations, MLS does indeed owe Portmore training fees. Chapter VII, Article 20 states: "Training compensation shall be paid to a player's training club(s): (1) when a player signs his first contract as a professional and (2) each time a professional is transferred until the end of the season of his 23rd birthday." MLS did not return a request for comment on the issue.

The twist is that FIFA has never actually forced MLS to pay such fees or to come up with an alternative standardized solution.

"FIFA has not figured out how to deal with this," said Romel Wallen, a Jamaica-based agent who is representing Portmore in discussions with MLS. "It will continue to happen."

While the amount Portmore is demanding seems miniscule in a league that generates millions of dollars in revenue, the precedent that would be set by paying Portmore could prove troublesome for MLS. Training fees for certain players in certain countries can reach six figures. So the accumulation of paying those fees for several players could potentially bite heavily into an MLS team's budget. Paying substantial training fees could discourage certain teams from seeking young talent outside the U.S., potentially stunting the growth of the league.

"We were always going to get here," Wallen said about the inevitable conflict resulting from the league's policy. "They don't want to open the floodgates, but relations with smaller entities must be maintained I think."

Wallen added: "It does come across as them taking advantage of smaller entities in the region."

More important than just its relations with Jamaican teams is MLS's ability to sign top young players in the future. If MLS is indeed going to move beyond the days of relying on aged international stars, it must find a way to attract young talent from outside the U.S. Refusing to pay training fees will make it difficult.

"It must inhibit their ability to attract top young talent from around the world," said Wallen.

In the past, MLS has dealt with situations regarding training fees on a case by case basis, often finding creative ways to satisfy both U.S. Soccer and the youth teams. One such alternative is for MLS to pay for a youth team's participation in an international tournament, according to one source with knowledge of the situation. Such an alternative may be an option with Portmore.

Wallen is confident that both sides will come to an agreement. He has gone so far as to assure Campbell's parents that their son will almost surely be playing for Columbus this coming season. But Portmore's insistence on compensation has caught league officials by surprise.

"Portmore is a big club in the region," said Wallen. "They are very successful. It's not a club that takes kindly to a non diplomatic approach. That probably took MLS aback a little bit."

Part of what drives Portmore's insistence is Campbell's pedigree as someone who has represented Jamaica at the U17, U20, and senior team levels.

"If you're not going to secure compensation for this type of player then what type of player are you going to secure it for?" Wallen asked.

Wallen said he understands MLS's reluctance to pay the fees. But Jamaica does not have the same child labor laws as the U.S. Those rules should not apply outside the country. Besides, Wallen said, Portmore is simply asking for what they are entitled to receive.

"It shouldn't be the club's burden," Wallen said. "The clubs are doing nothing wrong. They are following FIFA guidelines."

Theoretically, a standardized solution could be discussed during CBA talks. But neither the players association or the league are likely to push the issue. Agreeing to pay training fees will take money out of a team's budget—money that could go into the team's payroll. There is little motivation for either side to come up with an alternative when both sides are fighting for every available dollar.

Coincidentally, the Campbell case has come at a time when MLS is making a push to sign players from the Caribbean. Last month, MLS invited 19 players to participate in its second annual Caribbean Combine in Puerto Rico. Last season, 17 of the 208 MLS players born outside of the U.S. and Canada were Jamaican. Campbell was also among three Jamaican players—along with Romario Williams (Montreal Impact) and Oniel Fisher (Seattle Sounders)—selected in last month's draft. Jamaicans have become an important part of the league.

"The numbers don't lie," Wallen said.

But whether Jamaican teams continue to participate in events such as the Caribbean Combine may be determined by how MLS handles the Campbell situation. A failure to fairly compensate Portmore—or even worse yet, keeping Campbell from participating in the upcoming season—could result in a public relations nightmare. Jamaican youth teams may simply choose not to send their players to the Caribbean Combine anymore.

"What's the motivation for teams to send players to the combine, anyway?" Wallen asked. MLS will need to come up with an answer, and soon.