Much is at stake as the U.S. Soccer Federation and players from the men's national team have failed to reach a new labor agreement.
Just like the National (ice) Hockey League has locked out its players, unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, the U.S. Soccer Federation may be faced with the same choice.
The players have been working under their old deal since January of 2003, unable to agree with the federation on a compensation package. The federation initially offered a 26 percent increase in payments and has since upped that to 38 percent. But federation spokesman Jim Moorhouse told VOA Sports the two sides are still far apart.
"We certainly believe that is a fair increase for the players," he said. "The proposal put forward by the players' association calls for a 122 percent increase, and that is a number that they have not moved off of."
U.S. players earn between $2,000 and $6,000 for each World Cup qualifying match, depending on the opponent and the result. Payments for friendly matches against other international teams are slightly less. Under the expired deal, 25 players earned about $200,000 each for reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
The representative for the players' union, Mark Levinstein, says the federation has not made a reasonable offer for a new contract.
But Moorhouse emphasized that U.S. Soccer is a national governing body and not at all like the for-profit professional leagues and teams in the United States.
"All the money that we accrue eventually goes directly back into the game, and that is primarily through different U.S. soccer player and facility development initiatives," he said. "We are investing in the game, heavily in the long term growth of the game."
The most recent negotiating session was last week, and with the Christmas holidays approaching, no new talks are scheduled. The players declined to show up for a training camp this month, and the U.S. Soccer Federation has had to cancel next month's planned friendly matches against South Korea and Sweden. Those were to serve as warm-ups for the U.S. team before it begins the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
The opening regional group game is set for February 9 at Trinidad and Tobago. If a new labor deal is not reached by February 1, the U.S. Soccer Federation is threatening to drop all experienced players from the roster. Jim Moorhouse says time is running short.
"It will be necessary for us to explore, I guess, every available option that is out there in regards to fielding a team because we will field a team for all our scheduled qualifying games," he said. "In regards to how that's going to happen, those decision really have not been made yet."
Both sides have a lot to lose if a deal is not reached. The U.S. Soccer Federation needs the exposure of the World Cup to generate revenue, while the American players need the World Cup to help their professional careers. By performing at a high level in the World Cup, the players can attract interest from high-paying European teams. Without their best players, the Americans' chances to qualify for the 2006 World Cup will be severely reduced.