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Not just the virus: USL pay dispute jeopardizes United return

New Mexico United standout and Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval, right, is expressing solidarity with all United Soccer League players over pay issues. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Professional sports inch closer to a return to action after more than two months of a pandemic-related hiatus, yet health concerns for a safe return to play are hardly the only hurdle in the way of a return to the pitch for New Mexico United and its peers.

The USL Championship and the players association representing the league’s 35 teams are at odds over labor matters – both long term and as it relates to pay cuts should the current 2020 season resume.

And while New Mexico United has in its early existence earned a reputation of compensating players and offering health care options that are at a higher standard than the norm in the USL, United players know the matter is bigger than what’s happening in Albuquerque.

“Even though players here in New Mexico might be taken care of, there’s players that are in other markets that aren’t that fortunate,” said United player representative and Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval. “With the players association, we have to take care of our fellow players throughout the league, and make sure they’re all taken care of as well.”

Sandoval emphasized the players do want to get back to action this season, as long as it is in a manner that has player health and well being in mind, including financially.

The league and its players union, the USL Players Association, founded two years ago, have not agreed upon its first collective bargaining agreement. Earlier this month, the league office issued proposed pay cuts – in some cases by as much as 80% for players – for a return-to-play plan. Games likely won’t include fans in attendance, and the league financially is built primarily on live-event revenue.

Sandoval said players felt “disrespected” by the league’s proposal.

The USLPA, meanwhile, offered a counterproposal May 19 on social media with 2020 and beyond in mind. It said players on all teams were “unified” in rejection of the league’s “extreme wage decreases.” Citing lower-paid players in the league aren’t currently receiving livable wages, it includes such demands as future player minimum contracts of at least $20,000 per season.

The USLPA also says the proposed cuts for a return this season put an undue financial burden on what is an unfortunate situation with COVID-19 on the backs of the players without owners taking on their share. More specifically, the USLPA is proposing such terms as players with salaries of $2,000 or less per month would not have their pay cut at all for the 2020 season.

United players, who have returned to four-man training sessions in recent weeks as allowed by the league, have not had any pay cuts, and Sandoval emphasized the players’ fight isn’t so much with the owners, but with the USL.

Nevertheless, as pro-player as United owner Peter Trevisani has been, he acknowledged to the Journal this week that as an owner who agreed to be in the league, he has limitations on what he can control.

“The players and the owners are bound by what gets negotiated in that agreement,” Trevisani said. “So you know, my personal opinion of exactly where we are is less relevant because, for New Mexico United, whatever gets decided, whether it was something that I felt was unfair one way or the other – too much in the players favor or too much in the ownership favor – wouldn’t really matter. I’m bound by it. And so I’ve talked to our players about that. And I’ve told them what I think personally.”

But, he added, he is optimistic that the two sides may not be as far apart as it seems.

“It sounds like there’s empathy on both sides for not just the current situation,” Trevisani said, “but about how we can improve things going forward. I absolutely think that we need to create you know, some minimum standards for players.”

The USL, through Vice President for Communications Ryan Madden, responded to a Journal request about the matter with the following statement:

“We continue to meet regularly with the USLPA and are confident that we will find common ground. The truth is that collective bargaining is difficult under the most normal of scenarios, and that difficulty has only been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. I know we’re all looking forward to returning our focus to the field of play.”

The USL managed to get 17 matches in the books between March 6 and March 11, including a 1-0 United loss to Austin Bold FC, before play was suspended. There is no date set for a return to play.

AND ANOTHER THING: Sandoval acknowledged there are international players in Albuquerque and league-wide with growing concerns about the status of work visas to play in the United States should the season be further disrupted or even canceled.

In an article posted Monday by the Daily Mail in London, the publication wrote, “British footballers in the United States are at risk of being stripped of their visas amid a coronavirus pay dispute.”

The article quoted El Paso Locomotive midfielder Nick Ross saying, “Losing visas will put players off from coming back to play next season and if that doesn’t, then the league’s proposed pay cuts certainly will.”

CURSE SUPPORT: Sandoval had high praise for the support the players are receiving from the Curse, United’s supporters group that has been aggressive on social media and on its regular podcast show with criticism of the league and vocal support of the players, tagging #StandWithThePlayers on social media posts.

“If we are going to say we are a supporters group, then we need to support this club, and these players specifically, when they need us most,” said David Carl, President and co-founder of the Curse. “It’s really great to be out there in a stadium and to be loud and be crazy setting off smoke bombs and bang drums for 90 minutes (during matches), but I think when the players really need us is now.”

Carl added that the USL is putting an organization like United in a bad spot as it has taken care of its players to a higher standard than what the league seems willing to agree to in a CBA.

“As far as being at odds with the league,” Carl said, “I think the league is wrong here and I’ve got no problem being at odds with them. I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish they would offer a reasonable solution.”

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