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The 2015 MLS season is scheduled to begin Friday. It might not. The league and Players Union have yet to sign a new collective bargaining agreement.
A major issue at stake is free agency. MLS players want some variant of the opportunity afforded pro athletes in the country's four major leagues. Another issue is the league’s pay disparity. While a handful of stars earn millions of dollars each season, Major League Soccer’s median salary in 2014 was $92,000 and its minimum was just $36,5000.
Ross Friedman was a rookie defender with for Columbus Crew this past season. He earned the league minimum. He joined Bill Littlefield to share his experience.
BL: Ross, after four seasons playing college soccer at Harvard, you signed with the Crew. Did you have much of a choice?
We had five, six, seven guys on our roster that lived at home. ... That's kind of the rookie life in the MLS. You're just trying to survive. You're not doing it for the money.Ross Friedman, former Columbus Crew defender
BL: So I suppose after college you just walked into the Crew's office and said, "OK, let's negotiate a salary."
RF: Not so much. They kind of have like a standard, home-grown contract, and that's really what I was presented with.
BL: Looking back on it now, do you think being one of the Crew’s “Homegrown Players” back when you were still a youth league player worked out in your favor?
RF: I think it depends on the player's situation. Given a player like me, coming through Harvard — we're probably a mid-tier Div. I team — it definitely got my foot in the door. But for a big-name player, like a lot of my youth teammates, who went on to play at big schools like UNC and Akron, they could have played for any team they wanted to and had a lot of negotiation power, yet the Crew had first rights to them.
BL: In the NFL they have this tradition where the rookies have to pay for dinner for the whole team. I don't suppose that would work out very well in MLS.
[sidebar title="Sport Management Professor Weighs In" width="630" align="right"]A sport management professor discusses the pros and cons of Major League Soccer's income inequality and marketing strategy.[/sidebar]RF: Oh no, not at all. The MLS has a clear disparity in their pay. And you know that going into it. And that definitely plays a role within the locker room. Luckily for me I didn't have to deal with any of those situations where a big bill was dropped on my plate. But I don't know how I would have dealt with it.
BL: Your former teammate, Federico Higuain, an Argentine forward, had a base salary of more than $500,000 last year. He was the Crew's highest paid player, but other starters earned six-figures as well. Was that something you noticed?
BL: Well what about off the pitch? Do rookies and home-growns get set aside? Or did you get to hang around with some of these guys who had the big SUVs and the Porsches?
RF: It was natural that the low-paid guys are hanging out and the high-paid guys are either doing their own thing because they have families, or they're hanging out with each other.
BL: The Crew did not pick up your option for this coming season, and you have decided to end your pro soccer career. Are you still glad that you spent this past year in MLS?
RF: Yeah, for sure. It was definitely, you know, a dream of mine and something I really wanted to accomplish and I worked hard towards. But seeing players in the future that might want to drop out of college to join the MLS or even do this for the money, that's an issue. You really gotta do it for the love of the game because you're really not bringing in the big bucks unless you're a top, top player on a team.
This segment aired on February 28, 2015.