Crew opens against Toluca with no contract

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Crew head into Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal without a labor contract, the first Major League Soccer team to play a competitive game since the five-year deal expired last month.

Negotiations are set to resume Tuesday in Washington, D.C., with George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, at the bargaining table.

"I'm not really optimistic at this stage," Crew midfielder Brian Carroll said Monday. "Things are not going well. Guys are unified and ready to do what we need to do if we're not going to be treated better than we have been. Guys are fed up and it's about time players are treated better. That just means rights. We're not really talking about money here. We'll see what happens, but I'm prepared to do what I have to do."

While management has said it won't lock out players, the MLS Players Union hasn't issued a similar no-strike pledge. Players want greater free agency within the single-entity league, which negotiates contracts on behalf of all teams, and want a higher percentage of guaranteed contracts.

"The league is trying to make it into a monetary thing, so it's pretty comical when they bring that up," defender Danny O'Rourke said. "I've had numerous people that have read about the basic rights that we want as players and they say, 'You guys didn't really have that already?' It's kind of a joke. We're hoping the league realizes they are treating us bad and they step up."

The league's first labor contract was set to expire Jan. 31, then was extended twice but ran out Feb. 25 when players balked at a third extension.

"They're always going to make us look like the villains. Any athlete who argues for more money to play a game is always going to look bad," said goalkeeper William Hesmer, the Crew's player representative. "Weave said over and over again that this is not about money. This is about basic rights and them being more transparent in the way they do business."

A league spokesman declined comment Monday.

While MLS president Mark Abbott said last month that owners proposed giving an additional $60 million to players during a five-year deal, union head Bob 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.

The first MLS game is March 25, when the expansion Philadelphia Union is set to open at Seattle. But the Crew have an early start because they were the only MLS team to advance to the final eight of the Champions League. The New York Red Bulls were eliminated in the preliminary round last August, and D.C. United and Houston failed to advance past the group stage in October.

Mexico dominates the quarterfinals, with Pumas UNAM at Honduras' Marathon and Pachuca at Guatemala's Comunicaciones on Wednesday, and Cruz Azul and Panama's Arabe Unido on Thursday in the final first leg match. The second legs of the home-and-home, total-goals series are next week,

Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers said the threat of a strike could be the reason behind a decline in ticket sales.

"Our numbers are a little behind last year and may be attributed to that, but overall it hasn't been a huge factor," he said.

After playing at Toluca on March 17, the Crew host Toronto FC on March 27 in their league opener.

"They're human beings. This thing is probably affecting them a little bit, but hopefully they're going to get that agreement with the league and we're going to focus on playing soccer," Crew coach Robert Warzycha said of his players.