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Union won't say if willing to play under old deal

NEW YORK (AP) — The union for Major League Soccer players accused management of failing to bargain seriously and wouldn't say whether it will play under the terms of its expired labor contract.

A day after MLS president Mark Abbott went public with the league's offer to start the season next month without a new deal and claim that management offered $60 million in new money, the union issued a pair of statements that left open the possibility of the league's first strike.

"It is unfortunate that MLS doesn't see the modest changes we have proposed as being good for the league, especially since until these changes are made, more and more quality players who should be playing in MLS will not be doing so," MLS Players Union executive director Bob Foose said Sunday in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "It will also be a shame if the league's refusal to improve its system results in a work stoppage."

While training camps began on time and the season remains set to open March 25, the league's first collective bargaining agreement expired Jan. 31. The sides have twice extended bargaining, and talks resume Monday in Washington. The current extension runs to Thursday.

Abbott said the league made a full proposal after the last bargaining session, on Wednesday, and MLS hopes to find out Monday whether the union has questions about it, a response or wishes to discuss it.

"The league has made significant proposals in the areas of economics, guaranteed contracts, options and the operation of the right-of-first refusal that teams have," he said. "These changes, these proposals that we made, represent significant changes from the current CBA. They were designed to meet a number of the issues that were raised by the Players Union and they represent a very significant commitment on the part of our owners. If the players choose to strike, it won't be because the league hasn't made significant proposals. It will be because the players continue to insist on changes in our system that we simply can't make."

Players want increased freedom of movement within the league and don't like that most contracts are not guaranteed. In the single-entity structure of the MLS, which launched in 1996, all players sign with the league rather than individual teams.

Players were quoted in several outlets Saturday as saying little progress had been made in talks. Abbott said owners had proposed giving an additional $60 million to players during a five-year deal.

Foose said the league's proposal would slow salary growth from 5.9 percent to 4.8 percent annually and from a total of 33 percent over five years to 26 percent. He said the league includes salaries from future expansion teams as part of additional spending.

MLS union spokesman Neil Hare, responding to the offer to play under the expired rules, said the league is "not serious about working to have the season start under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement" and added a work stoppage would "be due to the league's failure to negotiate seriously with its players."

"This negotiation is not about huge raises for players, or massive new expenditures for owners," Foose said. "It is also not about unrestricted free agency. Rather it is about basic fairness for our members, and their ability to make improvements to a player system that is one-sided and unfair."

While Abbott took issue with the assertion the league has not negotiated seriously, he also made clear management thinks the players' proposals would harm the MLS's financial situation.

"While we don't seek a work stoppage," he said, "we will not make changes that threaten our ability to grow the league in the long run and to have a sustainable and viable league."