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    MLS commissioner makes pointed comments about referees, U.S. Open Cup ahead of season kickoff

    Just hours before Major League Soccer’s 29th season began in Fort Lauderdale, MLS commissioner Don Garber struck out at the Professional Soccer Referees Association for their approach to collective bargaining. He also gave the league’s perspective on its role in the U.S. Open Cup, saying MLS has been “supporting and subsidizing that tournament for a long time.”

    The Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the group that manages match officials in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues locked out officials, resulting in MLS using replacement referees in the interim after the referees’ union membership overwhelmingly voted to reject its leadership’s tentative plan with PRO, for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) via a vote of 95.8 percent “no.”

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    Garber said he could not recall a union rejecting an agreement that had been negotiated by its elected leadership and questioned whether the negotiation and vote that led to the lockout in the days ahead of the season starting was “intentional.”

    “They (PRO) reached agreement with the PSRA prior to the start of the season, and their membership didn’t support that agreement,” Garber said. “I can’t remember in my near-40 years in sports, of having a bargaining unit reach agreement and then not have their members support it. Very disappointing. The process, in my opinion, was one that either was intentional or there’s a disconnect between the members and their elected negotiators. So I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to reach an agreement. We are prepared. It’s not the way MLS was hoping to start a season, but you can’t really negotiate with an entity that, in my opinion, hasn’t really negotiated with PRO fairly.”

    Members of the union and other supporters protested outside of MLS and PRO offices in New York and also protested in the Dallas area on Wednesday ahead of the opening game between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake in Florida.

    Garber said he was not able to predict when the lockout may end because “we don’t even know what it is they’re looking for, because we agreed with their elected representation.”

    “My hope would be that they would have come and told us what it was that the officials were looking for that their elected representatives were not able to deliver for them rather than spending their time protesting outside our offices and doing whatever else it is to do to get everybody amped up,” Garber said. “I’ve gone through countless labor negotiations since I’ve been commissioner. We extended the negotiating window several times, which was requested by the PSRA, and we suggested a no-lockout, no-strike clause, they rejected that. So (I’m) sitting here today, not quite sure on what the next step is.

    “I’m sure at some point, they’ll let PRO know what their expectations are and we will have to manage through that process.”

    Asked again what he thought could bring the sides together, Garber said it was, from his perspective, difficult to provide an answer.

    “Pretty hard to forecast what a solution would be if you don’t even know what it is you’re negotiating for,” Garber said. “Which is why I think that it almost seems as if this was intentional. I don’t know how you get to a point where there’s a work stoppage and not know what it is that you’re disagreeing about. That’s frustrating, I would imagine it’s frustrating for fans, it’s certainly frustrating for us, but we’ll see how it plays out.”

    Garber also addressed questions about the league’s participation in the U.S. Open Cup going forward.

    MLS announced in December its intention to use its MLS Next Pro teams in the Open Cup, only for that request to be rejected by U.S. Soccer. In recent weeks, however, reports have indicated that MLS is still looking for ways to decrease its participation in the Open Cup.

    Sources told The Athletic on Wednesday that just eight MLS teams are expected to compete in the 2024 Open Cup tournament.

    The U.S. Open Cup, which was founded in 1913, is run and managed by the U.S. Soccer Federation. It includes teams from every level of soccer in the U.S., from the amateur level through the lower divisions of American soccer and up through MLS.

    Garber began an answer about the tournament by rejecting the idea that MLS is not supportive of the lower divisions, specifically the USL.

    “We have done an enormous amount in supporting the pyramid,” Garber said. “If not for MLS second teams participating in the USL when they relaunched, I’m not sure the USL would be where it is today. And we would have been more than happy to stay in the USL if we were not asked to leave. So I want to put in perspective our commitment to the lower professional levels of soccer in America. Our investment is in MLS Next Pro, which is almost unprecedented in professional soccer, that one league could be launching 30-35 teams that are developing players that ultimately will be participants in the U.S. national team, help seed our first teams in time. That’s an enormous investment in the pyramid. But the question is, ‘Does that investment have to be with another league that ultimately we probably don’t have the best relationship with?’ Not by our doing, by the way.”

    Garber said the league is dealing with schedule congestion, not just from the Leagues Cup, a tournament it created with Liga MX, but also due to CONCACAF Champions Cup and the summer tournaments coming over the next three years — the Copa America, Club World Cup and 2026 World Cup.

    Garber said MLS has “committed to participate and to what level is still to be determined.”

    “We will continue to do what we can to support the U.S. Open Cup, but we’re not going to do it in a way where the entire onus on making that tournament work is on Major League Soccer,” Garber said. “It needs the support from our federation, they’ve pledged to show more support to that. It needs to make more sense for our players and for our clubs. At this point we’re subsidizing that tournament.”

    (Photo: Omar Vega/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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